Stewart D. McLaurin
The holiday season at the White House has become a public moment, part of our national traditions. The lighting of the National Christmas Tree is televised. Visitors and dignitaries get to glimpse an Executive Mansion dressed up with glittering lights, garland and rich decorations.
It wasn’t always this way. The first known Christmas party at the White House was a small affair for the granddaughter of President John Adams and first lady Abigail Adams. Family lore has it that President Andrew Jackson’s children staged an indoor “snowball fight” with specially made cotton balls.
The first White House Christmas tree
The first documented record of a White House Christmas tree didn’t come until 1889, when President Benjamin Harrison put up an evergreen in the family quarters. Decades later, President Calvin Coolidge flipped the switch on the first public lighting of the National Christmas Tree. (The tree displayed in the Blue Room is still brought to the White House in a horse-drawn carriage.)
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It wasn’t until the era of President Franklin Roosevelt, who spent 10 Christmases at the White House, that the holiday season at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue moved toward becoming a bigger and more national event.
A big Christmas Eve party was thrown for White House staff. Eleanor Roosevelt used the holidays to draw attention to Great Depression conditions – by visiting tree-lightings in Black and working-class neighborhoods, along with charitable events hosted by the Salvation Army, Central Union Mission or a local Kiwanis club.
But the Roosevelts still celebrated a private Christmas, hanging stockings in the family quarters (including one with a rubber bone for Fala the Scottish terrier). Each year, FDR sat with his family for more than three hours to read Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
A wartime Christmas
Then came wartime. In the days after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans were on high alert. Fear and nighttime blackouts triggered calls to cancel the tree lighting.
On Christmas Eve, as the nation’s capital bristled with extra security, Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill – who had sailed for 10 days across the Atlantic to discuss global war strategy – emerged on the South Portico to light the tree. Christmas, the president told the assembled crowd and a nationwide radio audience, signified the “dignity and brotherhood of man” in the face of “enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them.”
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World War II brought changes large and small to Christmas at the White House. Roosevelt’s four sons fanned out on active duty, scattered across the world. Holiday gifts to staff included war bonds and a scroll with Roosevelt’s “D-Day Prayer.” As conservation and rationing took hold, electric bulbs were replaced with ornaments made by local schoolchildren.
When the war ended in 1945, President Harry Truman lit the tree with electricity once again: “This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years.”
A focus on holiday traditions
Christmas at the White House resumed its growth and traditions. It was first lady Mamie Eisenhower – who one year installed 26 trees, varying from tabletop size to 18 feet – who started the practice of regularly displaying a tree in the Blue Room.
Jackie Kennedy followed, kicking off a tradition of decorating themes (she chose Nutcracker Suite). Motifs since have included Antique Toys, Mother Goose, American Craft, ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas, Holidays in the National Parks, All Creatures Great and Small, and Simple Gifts. (This year’s is We the People.)
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First lady Patricia Nixon used Christmas to make the White House more visible and accessible, including candlelight tours for the public. She also began the practice of commissioning White House chefs to build holiday gingerbread houses – a simple A-frame design at first; later festooned with candy, jellybeans and reindeer; then growing into a village of gingerbread houses topped with hundreds of marzipan figures and spun sugar decorations.
In 1993, first lady Hillary Clinton oversaw the creation of a gingerbread replica of the White House that weighed nearly 100 pounds. Others have modeled Santa’s workshop, a winter castle and national monuments and historic landmarks.
Patricia Nixon’s gingerbread legacy lives on in this year’s “White House in Gingerbread” ornament – the latest in a White House ornament series going back to 1981 that has become a holiday tradition for millions of Americans.
Celebrations become diverse
White House holiday celebrations are also becoming more diverse. President Jimmy Carter began a tradition of attending local Hanukkah celebrations that President George W. Bush converted into an annual White House menorah lighting, in which the Marine Band plays Hanukkah favorites.
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Before the White House acquired a permanent menorah, it would often borrow a historically significant one for the occasion: 2008 featured a bronze candelabra given to President Truman by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion for the president’s help in establishing the state of Israel. (It was lit by the two leaders’ grandsons.)
After the parties and shopping and traveling, there will come an all-too-short respite. Maybe a little snow will cover the White House and its lawn and the trees, a moment of gray and white calm.
Presidents Truman and Reagan were known to try their hand at snowballs; here’s hoping that many of you can do the same this year.
Stewart D. McLaurin, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is president of the White House Historical Association, a private nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961.
The association also sells the annual White House Christmas ornament; all proceeds help fund the acquisition of furnishings and artwork for the White House permanent collection, assist in the preservation of the historic rooms and educate the public on the history of the White House.
More from Stewart D. McLaurin:
Trail of Tears to a Tribal Nations Summit: The White House’s role in Native American history
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