This is the second segment in a four-part article on Christmas at the White House. To read about The Presidents Presents, Getting & Giving Gifts, go to: https://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/12/05/christmas-at-the-white-house-the-presidents-presents-shopping-giving-getting-gifts-part-1-of-4/
Whether gathering to mark Christmas and Hanukkah as holy days or just to enjoy the Holiday Season without religious affiliation, there has long been a public interest in how it is celebrated in the White House by the First Family and have at least a sense of sharing it with them.
Throughout most of the 19th century, Christmas was not consistently marked as either a religious holiday or secular season of celebration. How it was marked and what demographics recognized it with either piety or mirth was determined by the importance placed by each particular Christian sect on commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ or how the day and season had been marked in the European countries of their ancestors and various sects. English Virginians, Dutch New Yorkers, Swedish Delawareans, German Pennsylvanians, French Mainers, Scottish North Carolinians, had not only their origin traditions but followed the dictates of Anglicanism, Congregationalism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Catholicism and other faiths to determine what, if anything, the day symbolized. The New York Dutch, for example, had long commemorated the holy day of Saint Nicholas and were responsible for the evolution of American mythology about Santa Claus, which was based on “Saint Nick.” Wealthy Episcopalians in Virginia partied during the Holiday Season but the merchant class of the same faith in New England did not. French Catholics were different in their Holiday traditions than Irish Catholics.
In contrast to the lively, crowded twelve days of holiday partying that George and Martha Washington enjoyed at their private home in Virginia, the public display of their holiday celebrating in the presidential mansions, in the first two capital cities of New York and Philadelphia, was subdued. They were cautious not to impose their idea of Christmas on political leaders representing a diversity of sects. Knowing the details could easily be divulged to and criticized by the public, their 1795 Christmas Day dinner for example, included twenty guests of all political persuasions and representing both houses of Congress. Among them were the Vice President and second President John Adams,, as well as Senators and Congressmen. On a two—tired buffet table, the Washingtons served a diversity of viands: roast beef, veal, turkey, duck, and ham. The meal concluded with fresh and dried fruits, nuts, wine and punch.As for gender equality, Martha Washington was the only woman in attendance.
In the immediate post-Civil War years of the Victorian Age, however, an ideal of the Christmas celebration emerged. It seemed to have been influenced by the impressions first cast in the 1840s by W. Clement Moore’s long poem The Night Before Christmas, Washington Irving’s account of the Dutch Christmas in his book, Knickerbocker’s New York, and Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. However the initial immigrant groups of English, Dutch, Scottish, Swedish differed from its perception of Christmas from the next major immigrant class of French, Irish and German, and the following one of those of Polish, Italian, Russian, Welsh, and Greek, one universal symbol of Christmas emerged among them all.
The Christmas Tree.
In a classic case of the Presidential family both following a new trend and then setting a wider example of it for all classes of Americans, the Christmas Tree became the initial point of Pop Culture focus regarding Christmas at the White House and has really never stopped.
Many articles and books have long suggested that the first Christmas Tree in the White House took place during Franklin Pierce’s tenure but the curator of his restored home museum determined that it was a fable circulated by his grandnieces. There are also claims that contemporary newspapers reported that the Ulysses S. Grant family had Christmas trees during several of their eight years in the White House.
By oral tradition and documentation, however, the Benjamin Harrison is still credited for the first White House Christmas Tree. The long-reported version claimed it was set up in 1889, the night before Christmas in the large Oval Room, used as a family parlor and the president’s study. It was suggested that his four little grandchildren who lived in the White House with him, had became obsessed with the story of Santa Claus, chattering with secrets, asking questions and making it clear they expected gifts from him.
The story that is factually established, in a letter written by First Daughter Mary McKee to her absent husband, parents of two of the presidential grandchildren, is that she and unnamed others, perhaps the President and gardening staff, set up a tree in what is today’s White House family kitchen, in the northwest corner room of the second floor that had been initially used as the nursery for the grandchildren
Mary McKee had written that “after breakfast we lighted the tree,” without delineating whether she meant the candles tied upright into place on the branches or electric light. It was likely the first. The President and his wife Caroline may have been visionaries about the Christmas Tree, but they were Luddites when it came to electricity. When the White House was first wired with the new form of lighting, the couple was terrified of getting shocked by touching the switches to turn the electricity on and off and had the braver servants do it.
Benjamin Harrison, with his apple-shaped belly and grey beard,, can also be credited with another Presidential Christmas first. A dead ringer for the rounded, elfin Santa Claus then popularized by the Thomas Nast cartoons of the fantastical man himself, he was the first known President to dress up as Santa Claus, dispersing the gifts to his grandchildren on Christmas morning.
Electric lights on the White House Christmas Tree, however, didn’t have to wait long – they appeared on the tree of the next Administration, the second, non-consecutive term of Grover Cleveland. He may have returned to resume his presidency after the four-year hiatus but by then he was then the father of three little girls and, along with his wife Frances, geared the holiday towards their delight and surprise.
Although their successors the McKinleys had no children of their own, five-year old Marjorie Morse, daughter of the President’s niece, came for a long White House stay with her parents in the late winter and early spring of 1900. A vague family reference suggests that although it was practically Easter, the little girl still had a small Christmas tree in her room. It’s unlikely that her great-uncle McKinley suggested it and more likely a matter of it being arranged by a staff gardener indulging the precocious child’s request.
It may be the same tree which one source claimed had been put up in the servants quarters. Either way, it did suggest the continuance of a tradition beginning to establish itself for children of the White House.
The tradition nearly ended with the next First Family. According to a magazine story printed in 1902, a year before that President Theodore Roosevelt’s son Archie broke an alleged principal of his father against the killing of trees to be used in millions of American homes. The story claimed that he had a small tree snuck into the house and kept in a large closet or storage room, on which he attached gifts for his family. According to a forestry historical society, however, Archie also had trees in 1901, 1903 and 1907.
The four White House Christmases under William Howard Taft nearly broke the fragile tradition. With the President and First Lady on an inspection tour of the Panama Canal during their last Holiday Season, in 1912, however, their eldest son and only daughter, Robert and Helen Taft, hosted an impromptu holiday party for younger, visiting relatives and had a Christmas Tree raised in the oval Blue Room. There seems to be no indication, however, that it was kept up for public display, there being no mention of its presence by the time of the New Year’s Day Reception that year. What was established with the Taft tree, however, is its location on the centrally-located oval room: the main tree in future Administrations would also be there.
Details about Christmas Trees being displayed for the private pleasure of the Harrisons and the four families which followed were only more fully disclosed for the public after the fact. While some press coverage told how the First Families were celebrating the holiday season, a sense of propriety about their privacy is suggested by the vague accounts. Praise for their reflecting “typical American households,” however, also reflected a public hunger to somehow relate to the parents and children who lived in the presidential mansion at any given point. Newspaper stories and either dutiful or critical editorials about the clothing, food quality, music and other non-political aspects of White House life almost always provoked a public reaction through letters to the newspaper editor or, more pointedly, to the President and First Lady themselves.
The American public has always had a sense of its theoretical ownership of “the people’s house,” as if it were a right guaranteed them by voting in a democracy and paying the federal taxes which furnished and maintained the White House. At the Holiday season, the public’s intense curiosity and “right to know” fixated less on how they privately spent the holiday and more on what their Christmas Tree looked like and being granted access to see it for themselves.
The very first event where the public had a sense of sharing some aspect of the Holiday Season with the President and his family took place in December 1916. While a large Christmas Tree had been set up by that time at the U.S. Capitol Building, the same community service organization which arranged for the tree also scheduled a large public performance of Christmas carols on the steps of the U.S. Treasury Building.
The headliner of the event was First Daughter Margaret Wilson, a professional singer. What created the tangible bond between President and public, however, was the unexpected presence at the event of Margaret’s father and stepmother.
With the Capitol Tree garnering attention and the President and First Lady making a public appearance at the Caroling performance, there was less press attention on the matter of a Christmas Tree inside the White House. There was no known editorializing over the fact that neither the Wilsons or Hardings ever had one during their tenures in either the public or private rooms.
Florence Harding did consider placing lit candles in each of the White House windows until insurance companies lobbied against it on the premise that it was a primary cause of house fires and that many Americans would follow her lead. She did, however, place wreaths in many of the windows which the public could see from Pennsylvania Avenue, according to one source.
Mrs. Harding also sent out a limited number of what might be considered the “first White House Christmas cards.” They were not greeting cards nor carried any special design evoking the holidays. However, she did send out an engraving of the North Portico of the White House on heavy card stock, which she used to comply with autograph requests or to send a brief message to a friend, and some examples have appeared of cards which she signed “best wishes of the season,” or “happy holidays.”
Although the Coolidges sent out non-religious greetings of the season while he was Governor of Massachusetts, they did not send out cards.
The Hoovers, Roosevelts and Trumans sent out signed cards that were pictures of themselves together from the White House.
Like others aspects of the Holiday Season which Presidential families shared with the general public, the “official White House Holiday Season” greeting card would codify in the 1950s.
However circumstantially it occurred, the raising of the first National Christmas Tree in 1923 just outside the fence of the White House, on the lawn of the Ellipse and the fact that President Coolidge agreed to come down to switch on its lights and make remarks began an enduring presidential custom at the holiday season.
Moved from 1924 to 1933 to the small park square behind the Treasury Building, then to Lafayette Square, sometimes with Presidents pressing the button or pulling a switch to turn the tree lights on, and sometimes doing so and delivering Christmas greetings carried by radio from their homes (FDR in New York, Truman in Missouri)
Although Grace Coolidge’s first White House Christmas, in 1923, came just four months after her husband became President, she had a clear intention of integrating her family’s holiday season with the public’s enjoyment of the season.
In the process, she established elements of traditions which continue to this day. Perhaps the most significant was her having a Vermont spruce tree placed in the Blue Room.
Unlike the Taft tree, which was more an afterthought intended to be enjoyed by family members, the Coolidge Christmas Tree was mounted early enough in the season for not only tourists but officials and other invited guests could enjoy it as the first bona fide White House Christmas Tree for the public.
Another tradition begun by Grace Coolidge for the public may not have endured through the decades into the 21st century – but it earned her a permanent historical footnotes: the only First Lady to have an original Christmas carol dedicated to her.
Inviting the public to come through the black gates and gather on the North Lawn, the First Lady arranged for the sixty-five choristers from the First Congregational Church, to which she belonged, perform Christmas carols for them.
The gathered public even had a chance to hear the First Lady and First Son (John Coolidge) sing, as they joined the choristers. There, the choral leader premiered his composition Christmas Bells for her.
Although Lou Hoover sought to continue her friend’s new precedent, she changed it by having carols sung by Girl Scouts, an organization she helped shape in its earliest days.
The fatal flaw, so to speak, was to deny the public to share the experience, the Hoover caroling taking place on Christmas Eve inside the White House for private guests.
The Great Depression extended from the Hoover Administration into that of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Of course, the latter part of his presdiency was dominated by World War II, which didn’t end until the succeeding Truman Administration.
Truman’s tenure was also marked by the postwar drive for voluntary food rationing, the Korean War and gutting and renovation of White House (which forced the Trumans to move out and into the smaller Blair House across the street).
The remarks by the Presidents also took on significant political dimensions.
The most obvious was the one given by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, as Nazi Germany’s Third Reich was beginning to dominate Europe and the President was then hosting his friend and ally, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who attended the event with him on the South Portico, from which F.D.R. lit the tree.
During the Roosevelt war years, the National Christmas Tree was not lit with electric lights but rather hung with ornaments gathered from local residents of Washington, and eventually the nation – and then the world.
Since the Trumans marked Christmas of 1952 just months after returning to live in the renovated White House and less than a month before the end of his presidency, there was little emphasis on decking its halls with holiday greenery, although there were at least two medium-sized Christmas trees greeting those who entered the White House, on the North Portico.
All this might have tarnished the brief period of a White House Holiday Season shared with the public in the 20s and 30s as merely a quaint ideal of a smaller, former world were it not for a First Lady for whom Christmas meant all the bells and whistles.
A real sense of the modern White House Holiday Season first emerged under the direction of First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. For the first time, a multitude of Christmas Trees appeared on the state floor, a grand total of twenty-eight in 1958, for example, but her vision went far beyond the trees.
At her order, local discount stores were scoured for seemingly miles of evergreen garlands and strings of colored electric lights, over-sized fabric red bows, and several hundred boxes of glass and plastic bauble ornaments. The gardening staff then took thin and long tree branches and spray-painted them white. Many windows had a wreath with an electric-light candle placed in them for those outside to see, turned on at dusk.
Holly and mistletoe was hung on the chandeliers, garland wrapped around the white columns of the Cross Hall, with the sprays of white branches placed at the base, bows and wreathes dressed all the free-standing candelabras.
There was also a uniquely Mid-Century Modern quality to Mamie’s Christmases, once with windows touched up with sprayed-on snow drifts and strings of tinsel thrown on the branches of all the trees. For a final touch, Mrs. Eisenhower had Christmas carols piped into a Christmas Tree in the East Room for the public.
The Eisenhowers were also the first to send out what is considered the first “official” White House Christmas card, a more formal design using the presidential seal.
Designed by their friend, Joyce Hall, the president of Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, both the President and Mrs. Eisenhower also had a lot of fun weighing in on the design of their own personal Holiday Season cards, all of them showing a sense of humor about themselves since they were both depicted in caricature.
But Mamie Eisenhower wasn’t the only First Lady to issue personal holiday cards to a small group of friends and family – but also not the sole one to design one.
Jacqueline Kennedy, especially fond of a black-and-white photograph captured of her driving a one-horse sled across the snowy White House South Lawn with her children used the image for her 1962 personal card.
Mrs. Kennedy was the driving force behind the creation and building of a National Cultural Center in Washington (later to be named for her late husband and which is, today, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts).
She used her considerable creative skills as a pen illustrator and watercolor painter to design two cards which were then printed and sold to the public, all proceeds going to the cultural center.
She named them Journey of the Magi and Trumpeting Angel. It gave not just those able to get to the White House during the holiday season but the whole world a chance to feel a bond, in a sense, with a presidential family during the holidays. If they bought a few boxes of cards, of course.
The Kennedys were the first to “premier” the Blue Room Christmas Tree for the press, the President and First Lady appearing together for photographers in front of it.
In choosing ornaments to fill its branches around images of costumed dancers and characters from the traditional Christmastime ballet of “The Nutcracker Suite” in 1961, it set the precedent for annual White House trees decorated with a “theme,” though they were often indistinct from other ones.
Under the LBJs there was one ornamented to evoke the Revolutionary era and another trimmed with only silver items. In 1969, the Nixons decorated with ornaments representing the flowers of the fifty states, another done entirely in gold ornaments which evoked the historic Monroe flatware service.
Oftentimes, the tree themes mirror well the issues of a particular era. In the mid-70s, during a lingering economic recession, for example, Betty Ford had a tree of “patchwork” ornaments crafted from driftwood, dried apples, corncobs and other available, natural items, to encourage families to be thrifty and make their own as the White House did. Later, there were ornaments reflecting Americana in honor of the 1976 Bicentennial.
Rosalynn Carter had a Victorian Tree, including a massive antique dollhouse placed beneath it. Nancy Reagan asked young adults from the Second Genesis drug recovery center to make the ornaments for many of the trees during her tenure, including tin foil, old holiday cards and wood-plant materials, with themes including nursery rhymes and musical instruments.
Hillary Clinton had trees with ornaments illustrating the holiday standbys The Twelve Days of Christmas and The Night Before Christmas. As with even neutral matters of personal taste, of course, whatever was done in the White House, even the tree ornaments, were easily politicized.
The 2008 tree under George W. Bush affirmed the patriotic tone which marked an Administration which focused on fighting two wars and high national security. During the Clinton years, Hillary Clinton invited leading national artists and art institutions to create unique ornaments around different annual themes.
Her first year’s theme of angels, brought contributions including a cloth ornament of actress Mae West, clad in a toga, based on her starring role in “I’m No Angel.” Shortly thereafter, a begrudged former government worker called the item “pornographic,” seeking to generate sales for his quickly-published book among the President’s political opponents.
Meanwhile, the National Christmas Tree had also grown to take on political symbolism. In 1965, during his remarks at the lighting, LBJ addressed growing concerns about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In 1979, Jimmy Carter decided that only one light on the now fifty smaller state trees around it would be it, to repesent the U.S. hostages taken by Iran. A year later, the National CHristmas Tree was lit for only 419 minutes, representing the number of days the hostages had been held prisoner.
Although each Presidential family would begin to adopt an annual theme for the Blue Room tree, some returned the focus to the National Christmas Tree.
Continuing a custom she began during her eight years as the Vice President’s wife, First Lady Barbara Bush annually rode atop a first engine, sometimes with one of her grandchildren, to place the star atop the tree.
During the Obama years, the entire First Family has set a record for never missing the annual tree-lighting ceremony, including the First Lady’s mother, Marian Robinson.
The late 1960s brought other White House Holiday innovations. Although Jackie Kennedy had arranged to borrow an antique crèche, depicting the nativity scene of the birth of Christ in 1961, it was loaned to the White House only through 1964.
When it was sold to and displayed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there were several years without such a representation.
With the blessing of Lady Bird Johnson, art patron Jane Englehardt managed to locate and purchase a similar crèche, made in Naples, Italy, which has been on public display in the East Room during the Holiday Season since 1967.
A new element of religious significance, in the First Families marking of the concurrent Hanukkah holiday also developed.
Carter was the first to cross the street to Lafayette Square Park and light a menorah there. Reagan was presented with one in the Oval Office.
Bush and Clinton both participated in ceremonies starting the eight-day holiday by lighting the first candle in the White House.
George W. Bush was the first to host a Hanukkah party in the White House.
Other customs have been consistently maintained through a single Administration.
During the Reagan years, Nancy Reagan would preview the state floor decorated for the holidays while accompanied by a different “Celebrity Santa,” including Washington Redskins player John Riggins, talk-show co-host Ed McMahon, TV weatherman Willard Scott, comedian Dom DeLuise and sitcom star Mr. T.
What the public didn’t know that on Christmas Eves with their family and friends, there was always a “guest Santa” who dressed up among them, to give out gifts – including the President and First Lady.
Pat Nixon was the first of the First Ladies who actively directed the overall coordinating the look of the White House Holiday Season.
She had wreaths hung in the windows each year, snowmen built on the South Lawn, displayed historical objects from past presidential holiday seasons (like a dollhouse Hayes gave to his daughter).
In fact, Pat Nixon herself helped the staff to unbox ornaments and climb ladders to hang the decorations, there being none of the large and organized volunteer work force which now descends on the mansion to do the job.
Back then, it was the electricians, handymen, gardeners – and the First Lady, along with her daughter Julie who helped.
While photographs document that the two young Kennedy children had their own small gingerbread house which they helped build – and then eat, it was under Pat Nixon’s tenure that the first stylized gingerbread house was made by the White House pastry chef and staff.
Starkly modest by today’s versions, it was a ski chalet baked and built by chef Henry Haller.
The Nixon gingerbread house set a precedent for a new tradition that’s become the second most popular after the Blue Room tree. Over time, the creations became more elaborate and specific.
In 1990 a “Land of Sweets” castle made of candy. During the Clinton years, houses were made of the childhood homes of both the President and his wife.
One year during the tenure of George and Laura Bush, a gingerbread White House had some marzipan figurines of their dogs and several “First Dogs” of previous First Families, along with larger holiday displays of others.
During the Obama years, the artistry involved has become even more extraordinary.
This year, for example, there is a marzipan reproduction of the First Lady’s famous vegetable garden as well.
Pat Nixon also started the tradition of “Candlelight Tours,” which has remained especially popular through most of the forty years since she hosted the first in 1971.
Having come from the working-class and even, as First Lady, doing some of the manual labor of hanging the White House Christmas decorations with the carpentry and electrical staff, Pat Nixon knew that most everyday citizens would be unable to enjoy the rooms during the regular daytime tour hours. She decided to have them come in the evenings, the lights dimmed to make the lit wreaths and trees glow all the more, while the Marine Band played holiday music.
For thirty years White House Candlelight tours continued unabated. Following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon in Washington on September 11, 2001, however, extreme security measures were immediately enacted in all federal facilities. Yet while public access to the White House came to an abrupt halt, all of the preparations of its halls and rooms for the Holiday Season had continued. The challenge was to somehow convey it to the general public as vividly as possible.
The eight years of the George W. Bush Administration was the first to entirely occur during not just the Internet Age but tech advances in digital video. Taking all this into consideration, First Lady Laura Bush approved a uniquely appealing venue for making the Holiday Season White House accessible to far more millions of people than could ever have taken a Candlelight Tour, even if the tours had been available.
Guiding the nation through the decorated state rooms and with unusually close close-ups of the “theme” tree was the appealing Barney, the Bush family’s Scottish terrier dog, who had a camcorder taping digital footage of it all. Produced into a film short available on websites, it kicked off what proved to be eight years of “Barney Cams” at the holidays, even after the Candlelight Tours resumed.
Another Scottie, Miss Beazley, would come to co-host the tours, but Barney always remained the star. Even the President, First Lady and their daughters never stole the spotlight from him, but all made an appearance in the last of the eight holiday videos.
First Daughter Barbara Bush carefully held onto the elderly family cat, ensuring no fighting like cats and dogs at the holidays.
By then, the involvement, or at least presence, of White House animal companions of Presidents and First Ladies had become practically expected.
It seems to have begun when, during a tree-lighting ceremony in which she became the first First Lady to light the National Tree, Nancy Reagan held onto her spaniel dog Rex.
Barbara Bush rarely made a public appearance without her constant companion Millie, another spaniel, and she was with the First Lady whenever she came to preview the Blue Room tree.
Michelle Obama has followed suit.
Much like Barbara Bush, there is rarely an event which is light in tone and involving children, where she doesn’t give the public a chance to meet the dog originally thought of as being for her daughters but who is often with her, at least when her children are at school and her husband in the office.
And while the Clinton years are remembered, in terms of First Dogs, as the golden era of the golden retriever Buddy, there was another animal who was there first and represented an entirely different demographic diversity.
Immortalized on White House holiday ornaments, sculptures, even the gingerbread house, Socks ruled the roost as well.
Here are other photos of First Families sharing White House Holiday Season moments..
- First Lady Michelle Obama Receives the 2012 White House Christmas Tree (whitehouse.gov)
- White House Christmas tree arrives – NBCNews.com (blog) (holidayblog.today.com)
- MIKE MORAN: The real or artificial Christmas ‘battle’ continues (tauntongazette.com)
- Video Interlude: Tour the White House Holiday Decorations With Bo Obama (curbed.com)
- LOOK: First Lady And First Dog Welcome, Sniff White House Christmas Tree (huffingtonpost.com)
- The Royal Roots of the American Christmas Tree (history.com)