No matter how much we may imagine them now as marbleized icons of history, even Presidents and First Ladies enjoy searching out the ideal gifts to give loved ones at the holiday season and sometime delight with an equal degree to receive them.
In 1789, during his very first holiday season as President, George Washington proved himself an indulgent husband.
Although not specifically designated as “Christmas presents,” he paid the steep prices asked in New York, then the capital city, for the gifts he presented to First Lady Martha Washington.
That year he paid 16 pounds for a fashionable set of seed pearl earrings and, suggesting a consciousness of themselves as national symbols, a seed pearl pin in the shape of the American emblem of the eagle.
Three years later, in the second temporary capital city of Philadelphia, he found just the right gift to let the jewelry to shine; in 1792, his gift to Martha was a black velvet gown, at the cost of 40 pounds. The same year he bought her seed pearl jewelry, he also bought her a fur cloak.
Lady Washington, however, didn’t seem to necessarily reciprocate at gift-giving. So it was that for his Christmas as the first President, George Washington bought his own fur cloak. Along with the one he got his wife, it came to a reasonable 42 pounds and 16 shillings.
The second First Lady Abigail Adams took a more direct role in deciding what Christmas gifts her husband would give – to her. She wanted three books: A Journey to Constantinople, Bennett’s Stricture on Female Education and Bennett’s Letters to a Young Lady. John Adams did well that year, getting her the trio.
Sometimes the most prized possible gift given to or by a President and First Lady and their family members isn’t an object but a sacrifice of time, thought or presence.
And sometimes they don’t always come through.
Four months after being forced to flee the White House in 1814, when British troops advanced on Washington and burned the presidential mansion during the War of 1812, First Lady Dolley Madison wanted only one Christmas present as she and President James Madison found refuge in the curiously-shaped Octagon House.
Despite having lost all of their personal items in the fire which destroyed the White House, she wrote that she especially longed for the presence of her beloved son Payne. Lacking any interest in education or pursuit of anything but gambling, women and liquor, the presidential stepson had been sent to Europe with the American peace negotiators, in the hopes of maturing him. Indicating that he would be on a ship home in time for the holidays, he had instead cut loose from the U.S. delegation to gallivant the Continent where he enjoyed celebrity as the “American Prince.” Further adding to the sense of emptiness during Christmas 1814 was the fact that the First Lady’s expected guests of her sister Lucy and brother John both failed to arrive by nightfall,
In 1921, another less than wonderful White House Christmas resulting from best of intended gifts, the sort only a President could give a First Lady.
As his first holiday season in the White House approached, Warren Harding received a long list of non-violent prisoners being held in federal penitentiaries who all had various pleas making the case for pardons on their behalf.
Proud and grateful for his wife Florence’s political acumen, he decided to let her determine the Christmas pardons. Harding approved her decisions – all except for one.
He was adamant about also freeing Eugene Debs, the Socialist conscientious objector to World War I jailed during the Red Scare. Florence Harding opposed the move, but acquiesced to the President.
Only further inflaming her was Harding’s insistence that Debs come to the White House on Christmas morning so they could meet.
“They had a hell of a row this morning,” their physician revealed to a mutual friend.
Some Presidents have expended tremendous effort to select a rarefied Christmas gift to please their First Ladies.
Having poured through art gallery catalogs for several months before Christmas, Jack Kennedy finally winnowed down his choice of six drawings from the Wildenstein Gallery in New York as possible gifts for Jackie.
He propped each one on his desk and stood back, but still could not make a final selection. He called in his visiting sister-in-law Lee Radziwill for guidance. “There is one in London I know Jackie would like,” she piped up. “That one, no doubt is of animals. I am getting tired of seeing animals,” he cracked to her. “Yes, it is,” she admitted. He decided against that.
In the end, he presented Jackie with a brightly-wrapped small canvas – painted by Renoir.
For her part, Jackie Kennedy decided to send a Christmas gift of her own to someone spending the holiday alone and ill, even though he happened to be Muslim. The First Lady ordered up a small but fully-decorated Christmas tree emblazoned with lights to King Saud of Saudi Arabia, then ill and being cared for in an American hospital. She wrote him a note that she, of course, knew his faith didn’t celebrate Christmas as a holiday but that her gift was simply to brighten his mood with the spirit of the season.
Knowing how much his wife Ida McKinley loved diamonds, the President gave her diamond side combs in 1897 for their first White House Christmas. The next year, it was two diamond bracelets. At the end of 1899, however, he was at wit’s end. After defying all the dire predictions that she would be an invalid First Lady for the first year and a half of the McKinley presidency, she had succumbed to a bout of seizures and chronic immobility, leaving her severely depressed. She claimed she wanted nothing for Christmas – a bad sign to her husband.
Compounding her despair was the fact that the intervening twenty-three years since the death of their three-and-a-half year old daughter Katie had not lessened the emotional pain of her loss, which for Ida always surged on the girl’s birthday – Christmas Day.
Then, having just been at Galt’s silver and gift shop, the White House steward saved the day, suggesting something he saw. McKinley brightened and sent him back to buy the item for him – which he did, delivering it to the President. And in the diamond-studded small blue picture frame, McKinley placed a picture of Katie, and Ida McKinley brightened with the greatest possible Christmas gift she could get.
Not all presidential couples exchange paintings and diamonds from Presidents at Christmas.
While Ronald and Nancy Reagan had a reputation for their romantic doting on one another, their Christmas presents to one another were likely the most practical ever exchanged by a First Couple.
Among the items were chain saws, pickup trucks and manure spreaders, all to be used on their Rancho del Cielo property in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Hillary Clinton was “displaying” the first of numerous Christmas gifts she received from her husband at the start of the 1996 Holiday Season while she greeted guests on a receiving line following the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony.
Not only did it light up – it blinked in different colors, being a necklace of battery-operated old-school Christmas tree lights.
She was also game at wearing the busy Christmas sweaters and other gifts she got early in the season.
Bill Clinton was an enthusiastic Christmas shopper who enjoyed browsing the public shops, sometimes with his daughter Chelsea, who helped finalize the choices from among the many the President wanted to buy the First Lady.
It was another “Bill,” however, who seemed to take the greatest pleasure among Presidents in trying to shock shopping district clerks and people out buying Christmas gifts by walking out among them.
On Christmas Eve, President William Howard Taft meandered through Galt’s gift shop in Washington, checking out various sizes and shapes of leather luggage which had been pre-selected for his perusal.
Before deciding which one to settle on, he walked over to the crowded Brentano’s bookstore, chatting in an easy, familiar way with the citizens who approached him. Whenever he was at the cash register paying for some gifts he bought, he repeatedly teased the clerks, asking, “Do you know who I am? Do you know where I live? Is my credit good?”
During the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover made a rare break from his unrelenting work to join his two sons Allan and a daughter-in-law.
He made a rare jaunt out into the public shops, stopping at a toy store where the four of them sought out gifts for the presidential grandchildren Peggy, Peter and Joan.
In the store, what might usually have been considered a breech of presidential privacy, the Hoovers allowed photographers to follow them and even posed there, an effort to encourage others to spend money buying gifts if they could afford to do so.
With the economic crisis continuing into the next Administration, his successor’s wife Eleanor Roosevelt did likewise, even posing in what appeared to be the same toy store.
As for buying items to give as personal gifts, she had a unique and efficient habit of shopping for Christmas gifts throughout the entire year, whenever she saw things that she knew would appeal to friends and family members.
In the White House she had a third-floor storage area set aside as her “gift room,” with bins where she kept the items, designated for individuals, ready to be wrapped as the holiday approached.
If Taft was the President who seemed to most enjoy mixing it up with the Holiday shopping public, Grace Coolidge was the First Lady who most loved doing so
Accompanied only by her Secret Service agent Jim Haley, she walked slowly along F Street, checking out the large department storefront windows of holiday displays and items being featured for sale, until she felt drawn in to shop.
Walking the aisles, she dropped to the floor as soon as she saw a leashed dog waiting patiently as his human companion idled over some vitrines. Fellow shoppers didn’t recognize her until a proud salesgirl welcomed her loudly by her name.
Over time, when Presidents, First Ladies or their familiar-faced children showed up to do holiday shopping in stores, the situation became decidedly less civil.
When Pat Nixon went out to a suburban Sears store with her daughter Julie to look over some luggage, the press was tipped off and turned up at the store, to entirely surround them
In stark contrast to Mrs. Coolidge was Mrs. Truman. Unwilling to be accompanied by Secret Service agents (although almost certainly being trailed by them) Bess Truman wasn’t nervous about being harmed by those hostile to her husband but being stalked by those admiring him.
Amazingly, although she had been First Lady for six months, she was able to do her Christmas shopping in 1945 completely unrecognized among even the clerks of Washington department stores.
Ironically, it was only when she returned to the holiday bustle on the street with her recognizable and extroverted daughter Margaret, that pedestrians began to stare at her. Word spreading fast, a press photographer finally managed to snap the duo when they exited a department store, the First Lady giving him a good grimace.
For Mamie Eisenhower, finally having the means which her husband’s position afforded her, was spent to accomplish a long-held Christmas wish. As she told the Chief Usher, “It’s been my desire, all my life, to be able to give a Christmas gift to everybody who works for me!”
She invited all the employees, regardless of station, in a series of small groups, up to the private family rooms where she proudly handed each individual a personal gift from her and the President.
The holiday gift that the Eisenhower children received, however, had implications of global politics. During his 1959 state visit, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschchev shocked the Eisenhower family by presenting them with a Christmas tree ornament.
Recalled Barbara Eisenhower, the President’s daughter-in-law: “Here was a Communist acknowledging a Christian holiday, but there were space rocket designs on one of them. Maybe he was trying to say, ‘Merry Christmas, but we’re still ahead in the space race.’”
Before there were laws determining that personal gifts given to a President and his wife over a certain value had to be reported as income, the matter was individually decided by the families.
Perhaps because she was a presidential niece and not a wife, Harriet Lane felt free to break her bachelor uncle James Buchanan and accept the exquisite Christmas gift given to her by a New York beau, Augustus Schell. While strolling along the Potomac one day, Harriet picked up some pebbles as souvenirs which he asked for – as a gift.
He returned them – after having Tiffany’s string them between diamonds to make a bracelet he gave her at Christmas in 1860. While she accepted it, she took some days before asking the President permission to keep some “pretty pebbles.” He told her it was fine. Only later did she fully disclose the truth, justifying the holiday gift because, “diamonds are pebbles.”
Surrounded by dozens of nieces and nephews for his first Christmas as President, in 1885, middle-aged bachelor Grover Cleveland could never have dreamed that on his last one, in the final year of his second, non-consecutive term, he would have been out hunting down not just girlish dolls in toy stores but enough of a variety of them that not resembled another.
By 1896, however, he had three little daughters who had all reached an age of knowing toddlerhood: Ruth, five years old, three-year old Esther (born in the White House) and one-year old Marion.
With experience in sending hundreds of gifts each Christmas to her husband’s constituents when he was in the House and Senate, as the president’s wife Lady Bird Johnson often sent smaller gifts out to her wide circle of friends and family of homemade pralines and divinity nougat candy.
As for LBJ, he especially enjoyed giving out Christmas gifts for his wife and daughters Lynda and Luci of beautiful clothes which he had personally picked out for them. Not long after they opened their gifts, however, they dashed out to put them on. “As soon as he gives you something,” Mrs. Johnson wrote about her husband, “He can’t wait for you to wear it.”
One of the favorite Washington stores of not just young Tad Lincoln but his father was the Stuntz Toy Store.
At Christmas time they could always be guaranteed on showing up there, the President helping his son pick out tiny, painted lead figures of soldiers in various combat, to add to his collection and buying them as the boy’s Christmas gifts.
The First Son, however, decided to present his own holiday gift to real, living soldiers. In the days leading up to Christmas in 1863, ten-year old Tad had been sent dozens of books and other gifts by the general public.
On Christmas Eve, he unceremoniously burst into his father’s office, as he always did, carrying a stack of the items, declaring that he wanted to send them all as a gift to soldiers stationed nearby, some of whom he’d befriended when they were on duty at the White House.
“Yes, my son,” the President told him, “Send a big box. Ask mother for plenty of warm things, and tell Daniel to pack in all the good eatables he can, and let him mark the box, ‘From Tad Lincoln.’”
Another First Son showed an equal thoughtfulness in his gift-giving. In 1902, when the 9 year old Archie Roosevelt, the second eldest of Theodore Roosevelt’s four sons burst into the presidential bedroom of his parents on Christmas morning, joined by his five siblings, he carried in his famous small tree. On it were ten small gifts he’d bought, one for each family member, his two parents, five siblings – and three of his beloved White House companions, kitten Tom Quartz, dog Jack and pony Algonquin.
More recently, Barack Obama has been welcoming the Holiday Season a lot like Bill Clinton and Bill Taft – by going out shopping himself.
In 2012, as he had done in two previous years to help encourage citizens to buy Christmas presents at small, independent businesses, the President and his daughters Malia and Sasha perused the aisles of a local, Washington bookstore where they made several purchases.
With the First Lady and First Daughters having already left for their traditional Christmas vacation in Hawaii, in 2011, the President squeezed in some of his own last-minute shopping right before flying off to join them.
Doing his equal part for big-box stores, dashing into the electronic store Best Buy, In Alexandria, Virginia.
It was not his appearance there alone however, which made bigger headlines.
Nobody suggested to the President of the United States that dogs weren’t allowed in Best Buy – but he had another store in mind to find the right gift for another member of the First Family.
And just in case he wasn’t sure to get, First Dog Bo was prowling the aisles of Petsmart to guide him.
Here are more Presidential Family member shopping for others and unwrapping their gifts.
This is the first in a series of four articles on Christmas at the White House. The others are:
Trees, Gingerbread Houses, Menorahs, Celebrity Santas & Other Innovations: https://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/12/06/christmas-at-the-white-house-trees-gingerbread-houses-mennorahs-celebrity-santas-other-innovations-part-2/
- Thanks to Presidents Giving Us Turkey Day & Pictures of First Family Thanksgivings (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Whittier third-graders visit National First Ladies Library (indeonline.com)