Before the lights went on, Bush remembered U.S. troops who are risking their lives far from home.
"Over the past eight years, my greatest honor as president has been serving as commander in chief of the finest military ever known," Bush said. "They serve with courage and with honor, and they've made incredible sacrifices."
Bush also talked on stage with a man dressed as Santa Claus and brought up life after the White House.
"You may have heard that Laura and I are going to have plenty of time next year," he told Santa. "The problem is we're going to be short on an airplane" after leaving the White House. "Have you got an extra sleigh?"
Bush was treated to a Christmas song, "When It's Christmas Time in Texas," sung by Santa himself.
"There's nothing like Christmas in Crawford, isn't that right Mr. President," Santa said, referring to the Texas town where Bush has a ranch. Bush plans to live in a North Dallas neighborhood after leaving office in January.
Every president has presided over the tree lighting since Calvin Coolidge in 1923. The current National Christmas Tree, a Colorado Blue Spruce, was planted on the Ellipse in 1978.
This year, the White House used more energy-efficient lights on the tree, reducing the energy used by 55 percent from last year.
The tree-lighting ceremony kicks off weeks of activities that allow the public to soak in the holiday scene around the White House.
Musical groups will perform nightly on the Ellipse from Dec. 6 through Dec. 23, according to the National Park Service. The tree will be illuminated every night, from Dec. 6 through Jan. 1, from dusk until 11 p.m.