Living in the White House affords even Presidential families who neither earned nor inherited great wealth a privileged lifestyle and while many have privately and publicly supported various charitable organizations or risen to the occasion in the time of a humanitarian emergency. Even without the public expectation that they, at the least, provide the most neglected segments of society with some desperately needed clothing, a full Christmas meal, financial support and gifts of toys for children, many have felt compelled to do so on their own.
Andrew Jackson was the first known President to make a conscious act of public charity towards the vulnerable of society during the Holiday Season. Beneath his bravado lay a particular vulnerability.
With no blood family of his own, Jackson had adopted his late wife’s nephew and further, became part of her larger Donelson clan. The Jackson White House, always filled with members of the extensive family , was notable for the large number of little children there. Indulged with all the privileges of his wealth, however, they were led by the President on a purposeful mission during the Holiday Season – to a local orphanage.
Grandniece Mary Emily Donelson recalled how, once there, he made the Jackson children stand and hand each orphan a wrapped gift from a bag of such items. When one asked the President why these children weren’t getting toys from their parents, he grew silent, then explained: “I once knew a little boy who not only never had a toy in his life, but after the death of his mother, a pure and saintly woman, had neither home nor friends.” Only later did she learn that Jackson was describing his own childhood.
Whenever the nation has been at war, the primary demographic of concern of Presidential families at the holiday season has always been those serving in the armed forces. Having lost her son Willie to typhoid months earlier and fearful her husband would be assassinated, Mary Lincoln was in a dismal state of mind. She also knew she’d be considered disloyal if she showed grief about her mortally wounded brother David Todd, a Confederate soldier. According to her niece, despite the fact that Washington area hospitals were swelling with wounded Union Army soldiers, at Christmas time in 1862, President Lincoln “demanded that the festivities of the holiday season must be observed. The gloom and discouragement must not be acknowledged.”
In accordance, Mrs. Lincoln took action upon her return. Having spent the previous months visiting the wards of wounded Union soldiers at two large Washington area care centers, the Douglas and Campbell’s hospitals, she called on donors to underwrite a Christmas dinner for them there. She further arranged for crates of citrus fruits to be sent to them as a preventative measure against scurvy and whiskey from the White House supply for medicinal use.
During the nearly four years of her widowed father’s presidency Nell Arthur was kept so protected by him and her aunt Molly McElroy, who served as his hostess, that she was unrecognizable to the general public. During the 1882 Holiday Season, however, the that little Nell emerged publicly. In 1881, a student in the local private school Madame Burr’s, the First Daughter helped to found the St. John’s Guild of the Holy Child. Created to provide hot meals on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for some 2,000 local children living in poverty, the organization gained support from the mere fact that every year Nell Arthur appeared to dish out the food at the hall where the meals were served. She also had the pride of accomplishing the enormous task of helping organize a drive of some 20,000 clothing items and toys to give the less advantaged children a gift for Christmas.
In 1893, First Lady Frances Cleveland signed on as a leader of the same organization which by then was primarily aiding the African-American community which had become particularly impoverished. It had been Washington’s Charlotte Hopkins, later a local leader of the National Civic Federation, who had first exposed Mrs. Cleveland to the poverty so close to the White House and engaged her support.
With the “badge of the Christmas Club gleaming white on her fur-trimmed garnet coat,” wrote one reporter, she “helped distribute the toys and candy from the sparkling Christmas tree.”
Each year, she remained until the dinner portion of the annual event was over and sat through the traditional Punch-and-Judy puppet show put on for the children.
For at least one reported Christmas, President Theodore Roosevelt‘s role at a holiday event for disadvantaged children in his hometown of Oyster Bay, New York. took an even more active role than that played by Mrs. Cleveland. Claimed to usually hand out wrapped gifts at the annual event, he decided to make it more authentic one year, reputedly dressing as Santa Claus, and pulling up in a sleigh from his nearby estate Sagamore Hill.
The President and Mrs. Roosevelt were kept abreast of deplorable living conditions in crowded tenements among new immigrants to New York through their friend, the reformer Jacob Riis. Sending their private contributions all through the year for those families whom Riis identified as the neediest, they also sent extra support during the holiday season, though neither appeared in New York at any of the charitable Christmas events where food was distributed.
For many years, the primary focus of the holiday season’s charitable efforts by presidential families was almost exclusively on children. Three successive First Ladies during the 1920s and 1930s, for example, all presided over the Christmas parties hosted by Washington’s Central Union Mission for children. With photographers focused on her, Grace Coolidge would pose for still pictures with Santa Claus as she handed out toys to children. When the nation was hit by the Great Depression, however, not only would Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt stand for long hours more giving out hundreds of more donated toys, but they also now gave a bag of food which supplied a full Christmas dinner for an impoverished family. (you can watch a video of unedited footage showing Mrs. Hoover’s 1931 visit as the first in a six-part series “Christmas at the White House with the Presidential Families,” at the end of this article).
Without any press coverage, Mamie Eisenhower expanded the scope of this tradition to a national level. Although the economy by the mid-1950s, there were still hundreds of families who wrote to her, asking if the power of the White House could somehow help them in buying the gift of a toy or clothes for their children.
Knowing that the public had been sending hundreds of gifts to her own four grandchildren, the First Lady directed that those toys now be redirected and sent to the families who had not one to give their children.
Holiday parties for the children and young guests of First Families had been held at the White House under Tyler, Taylor, Andrew Johnson, Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Taft and dances hosted there for adult children and their schoolmates and friends also under Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt.
Jackie Kennedy also began the custom of hosting a special Christmas party for the children of the diplomatic corps, a colorful affair where they often appeared in native costumes.
These White House Holiday parties and dances were, of course, held for young children and young adults from wealthy and privileged backgrounds. Although Mrs. Kennedy “hosted” a holiday party for underprivileged children in the White House, she and her family were already out of town with the President’s family at the time the event was held.
It was LBJ’s daughter Luci Baines Johnson who not only hosted but helped organize and attend White House holiday parties for underprivileged children who lived in her “neighborhood” of Washington, D.C.
Pat Nixon continued this tradition by hosting Christmas parties on the presidential yacht.
Bill Clinton created his own holiday tradition, annually gathering several dozen children around him in the East Room, either from local social service organizations or public schools, and reading the The Night before Christmas to them, after which there was a holiday luncheon and treats provided for them all.
Other First Ladies focused on specific organizations they had a history of supporting, having lived in Washington before entering the White House.
For Betty Ford, it was Children’s Hospital, where she had visited the wards and helped raise funds for its expansion as a congressional wife. Her dedication to the organization was a continuance of an interest she had first shared with her mother, who took her as a young adult to a local Michigan children’s hospital.
Like Mrs. Ford, Jackie Kennedy and Barbara Bush also visited local children’s’ hospitals (you can see a newsreel of Jackie Kennedy’s and Barbara Bush’s visits to the children’s hospitals in the third and fifth videos in the six-part series “Christmas at the White House with the Presidential Families,” at the end of this article).
For Jackie Kennedy, the holidays were also marked by her 1961 visit to Junior Village, a home where a large number of abandoned, orphaned and troubled child found a place to live.
Not all of the charitable endeavors of Presidential families during the Holiday Season have been focused on those living in impoverished or disadvantaged conditions, or even exclusively children.
For four year before she celebrated her first Christmas as First Lady in 1921, Florence Harding had been making dozens of regular visits and bringing gifts of food, books, flowers, cigarettes and other items to the wounded and disabled veterans of World War I at Walter Reed Hospital with whom she’d developed a relationship before becoming First Lady.
Wanting to surprise the men she called “my boys” with something different and unique to that time of year, Mrs. Harding sent along jumbo-sized candy canes up to them.
After having contracted the lifelong condition of polio nearly a dozen years before he became President, Franklin D. Roosevelt had sought out some relief, with the hope of regaining some leg movement (or at the least, prevent further muscle degeneration) with hydrotherapy in the hot mineral springs of a town called Warm Springs, Georgia. Eventually he helped to create a rehabilitative center there, where others with similar symptoms might find help – and certainly comradeship. Building his own “President’s Cottage” on the property, he retreated there often. He also traditionally spent some time during the Holiday Season there with others who were paralyzed to some degree, and hosted an annual dinner for them. (you can see a newsreel of Franklin Roosevelt’s Warm Springs Christmas dinner event in the second video in the six-part series “Christmas at the White House with the Presidential Families,” at the end of this article).
Barbara Bush hosted a unique one for local children from homeless families but made more headlines when she took action after learning that local stores were banning the bell-ringing blue-coated Salvation Army volunteers. Standing at store entrances to urge holiday-shoppers to toss some coins and bills into their red pots, they were deemed a nuisance in 1989.
Long a supporter of the organization, the First Lady was driven in a White House limousine to a local mall where she got out and put some money in the Salvation Army pot – and was photographed doing so, helping to reverse the ban.
Traditionally spending the holiday with his family on an annual trip to his home state of Hawaii, President Obama, joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, has made a custom of going from Christmas Day church services to a local military base, visiting with military personnel stationed there, and thanking them for their service in wartime.
Always accompanied by First Lady Michelle Obama, during her holiday visits with him she has emphasized the sacrifices also inherently made by the wives, husbands, and children of active military personnel.
As she began final preparations for the 2012 White House Holiday Season, Mrs. Obama hosted a day set aside for the youngest children of military families to come to the mansion and work with her in crafting ornaments for the White House trees, and making and decorating holiday cookies. by inviting the children of military families to help kick it off by coming to the mansion and making ornaments for the tree with her.
(you can see video of Mrs. Obama’s remarks on the 2012 White House Holiday Season effort to honor members of the military in the final video in the six-part series “Christmas at the White House with the Presidential Families,” just below).
Here are five of the six videos in the “Christmas at the White House with the Presidential Families” series. The last one (out-of-sequence), The Lyndon B. Johnson Family, Part IV or VI, will appear with the final article in this website series.
Part I of VI, First Lady Lou Hoover
Part II of VI, The Franklin D. Roosevelt Family
Part III of VI, President Truman, The Dwight D. Eisenhower Family, The President and Mrs. Kennedy
Part V of VI, President Nixon, First Lady Nancy Reagan, First Lady Barbara Bush
Part VI of VI, President Clinton, The George W. Bush Family, The President and Mrs. Obama
- Christmas at the White House: Trees, Gingerbread Houses, Mennorahs, Celebrity Santas & Other Innovations, Part 2 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Christmas at the White House: The President’s Presents, Shopping, Giving & Getting Gifts, Part 1 of 4 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Thanks to Presidents Giving Us Turkey Day & Pictures of First Family Thanksgivings (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Bo Obama Inspects The White House Holiday Decorations (new102.cbslocal.com)
- Bo The Presidential Dog Gives A Tour Of The White House Christmas Decorations (947thewave.cbslocal.com)