Washington - The US presidential inauguration is a centuries-old tradition, but despite the warmth and affection offered an incoming leader, the quadrennial ceremony is often a bitterly cold affair.

In 1841 the weather that greeted ninth president William Henry Harrison, who refused a coat and hat in delivering the longest inaugural address in US history, was so brutal, he contracted pneumonia and died 32 days later.

It was so frigid for president Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration in January 1985 (minus 15ºC) that he shifted his ceremony indoors to the Capitol Rotunda, snubbing the 140 000 guests gathered outside.

Weather conditions aside, Americans are enamoured with the ritual, whose date and time – January 20 at noon – are defined by the US Constitution.

This year, with the 20th being a Sunday, the ceremony will take place on January 21, an auspicious day for America’s first black president as it is a holiday honouring civil rights hero Martin Luther King.

President Barack Obama will be officially sworn in on January 20, in a private ceremony with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

George Washington, the first commander-in-chief, took the oath of office in 1789 in New York. After lawmakers moved the capital to Washington in 1800, all subsequent presidents were sworn in on Capitol Hill.

Construction began even before the November 6 election on the expansive platforms that will hold some 1 600 dignitaries, including all members of Congress, Obama’s cabinet, Supreme Court justices, military staff, state governors and the diplomatic corps.

In 2009 an astounding 1.8 million people packed the Capitol grounds and the mall for Obama’s historic first inauguration. Expectations are considerably lower this time around, with police predicting a crowd of 600 000 to 800 000.

Pop queen Beyoncé will sing The Star Spangled Banner and singers Kelly Clarkson and James Taylor will also perform.

Following Obama’s address, politicians and dignitaries will gather in the Capitol for a formal luncheon.

Obama and First Lady Michelle then take a limousine ride down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, where they will review a parade of soldiers, citizen groups and marching bands.

In the evening, the couple will attend two inaugural balls, one for military personnel and another open to the public. Tickets have already been snapped up. – Sapa-AFP