This is the fourth and final article in the series Christmas at the White House.
You can find the previous three at the links at the end of this article.
If contemporary observers expect a “theme” each succeeding year of how Christmas and the holiday season is celebrated in the White House, the very first such theme might have been easily dubbed “Misery.” In 1800, John and Abigail Adams had moved into the newly constructed but unfinished presidential mansion only a month before the holiday season began and just as he lost his re-election bid.
On top of this Mrs. Adams was deeply depressed for a personal reason: on her way to Washington she had stopped in New York to see her son Charles, a severe alcoholic. She recognized that he was terminally ill and that it was the last time she would see him alive. Even the presence of his four-year daughter old Suzanna, the presidential granddaughter failed to dispel the gloom. A friend broke dishes from her set of toy doll plates she was given as a gift and in retaliation the First Granddaughter bit off the head of her friend’s wax doll.
At the first Christmas reception hosted in the new presidential mansion failed to make it memorable. It was freezing cold. Even with all the fireplaces going, as Mrs. Adams wrote in her famous first letter reporting on what living there was like, the plastered walls were still wet and not all the glass panes had been fitted into the windows.
In 1802 was perhaps the happiest Christmas Thomas Jefferson had experienced as an older adult, having both of his daughters Martha and Maria visiting with him in the White House for a month, along with their husbands who were both Congressmen, some six grandchildren and his friend Secretary of State James Madison and his wife Dolley. The President himself walked to the market and chose the Christmas goose that would be served at dinner, while Mrs. Madison gave the four girls of First Daughter Martha Randolph for a carriage ride to see Georgetown for the first time. A later account claims that the President hosted a children’s party for his grandchildren and several dozen other youngster in the capital city.
In 1811, for the third time during the first four presidencies, an incumbent President invited a future President to share Christmas dinner with him. In this case, the hosts were James and Dolley Madison (she wearing an eye-popping purple dress, cut low to display her ample bosom as was the style) and guests were a mix of family and friends: among them were the First Lady’s sisters Anna and Lucy, whose seats flanked that of the President, Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay, the unpredictable Virginia Congressman John Randolph, and Madison’s Secretary of State and his wife, James and Elizabeth Monroe – the very next President and First Lady. Monroe gave a toast to the women. After dinner there were rounds of the family’s favorite card game of loo in the Yellow Oval Room.
In contrast to their lonely and depressing 1814 holiday season, following the burning of the White House five months before that, James and Dolley Madison held an animated Christmas Eve dinner party in 1815. The war was over and the city of Washington was being rebuilt. At night, cannons boomed outside to mark the holiday while in their temporary home, the Madison had the Navy Secretary and his wife, Benjamin and Mary Crowninshield as guests and permitted her loud green parrot to fly freely through the rooms. Mary recorded that it was “quite a frolic” but noticed that while the First Lady served the dessert she popularized “ice cream put in a silver dish,” the portions were smaller than in pre-war days, served “on saucers instead of plates.”
It was “The Children of President Jackson’s Family” who hosted the first documented children’s Christmas party in the White House on December 19, 1835. There were games of Blind Man’s Bluff and Hide-and-Seek in the large East Room.
On a large cross-shaped table, a large tray of cotton snowballs was piled and the kids were encouraged to enjoy a “snowball fight,” in between snacks of candied oranges and grapes, dried apples, peaches, and pears and the odd treat of sugared vegetables including carrots, squash, beans and corn.
Among the adults watching from the sidelines were Mary Lee, the wife of Robert E. Lee, former First Lady Dolley Madison and Vice President (and future President) Martin Van Buren. To make the little ones laugh, the usually posh Van Buren stood on one leg and hopped around making noises, impersonating a turkey for them.
As a guest attending the President’s Christmas Eve dinner in 1842, along with her husband, a New York state senator and their two debutante daughters, Juliana Gardiner was startled by how intensely the married First Son John Tyler, Jr. flirted with the eldest daughter Julia and rudely ignored the younger one, Margaret.
Given her shock, she could never have foreseen that just two years later, by the time the Tyler presidential family was celebrating Christmas in 1844, her husband would be dead, killed by a cannon explosion during a presidential cruise, Margaret would be volunteering as White House Social Secretary and Julia would be the First Lady, having married the widowed President that previous June.
For what was Tyler’s final White House Christmas, Margaret took charge of making the mansion merry for the holidays, having all the state rooms decked in evergreen wreaths.
She especially saw to it that the large Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, then hung on the eastern wall of the Red Room, was framed in boughs of greenery. Margaret Gardiner’s efforts are the first documented instance of the White House public rooms being decorated specifically for the Holiday Season.
The only aspect of Margaret’s report of how she and the First Family spent Christmas which is surprising was the lack of any of the family’s favorite beverage of champagne being served: “We commenced the day with Eggnog and concluded with Apple Toddy.”
It was no surprise to anyone that John Tyler, Jr. was, by then, separated from his wife.
In utterly stark contrast, the Polks spent Christmas Eve 1847 true to form. It happened to fall on their regularly scheduled public reception night and they went ahead with it as usual, rather than as a holiday party.
The President stood before a fireplace, bowing to guests while, a guest recalled, the “shrewd and sensible” First Lady being “engaged in lively conversation.”
Two years earlier, her niece Joanna Rucker, visiting at the Holiday Season, noted that Christmas Day was quiet, everyone being in church and decided to explore what a Catholic mass on Christmas was like.
She found “a great deal of ceremony, burning of incense and a great deal of nonsense to me, but I say ‘everyone to his notion.’”
The presence of young children, as is true in most homes, spiked the conviviality of Christmas in the White House. The Rutherford B. Hayes family celebrated Christmas unabashedly in the White House. In 1880, the President recorded in his diary that while he, his wife, older sons, other relatives, close friends and the household staff waited in the upstairs Oval Room, the two youngest children Scott and Fanny would run down to the Red Room where elaborately-wrapped gifts were piled up, fetch one at a time and run them up to the President who determined the recipient of each gift and handed them out. Fanny Hayes lucked out with a dollhouse handcrafted by a local carpenter, a gift from her parents.
In 1902, their second Christmas had both Theodore and Edith Roosevelt stuffing the stockings of their children and hanging them over the fireplace in their bedroom.
After opening presents on their parents’ bed, all the children dressed for Christmas dinner at the President’s sister’s home in Virginia, while “Teddy” went out for a vigorous horse ride.
During their last holiday White House season, in 1908, Edith Roosevelt organized a dinner for fifty guests, the table covered with green ferns and red leaves.
At each place was a tissue paper popper which, when pulled, became a ridiculous hat – which all of them wore.
After a meal of turkey came trays of flaming plum pudding and miniature Santa Clauses in flavored ices.
The first presidential couple to spend the Holiday Season in another country occurred in 1918, when Woodrow and Edith Wilson spent it in France, where they’d come for the peace conference talks following the end of World War I.
During the day of Christmas Eve, they strolled the streets of Paris, stopping at Brentano’s bookstore and Perrine’s couturier shop. At a flower shop, they paused to watch mistletoe being sprayed with gold paint. On Christmas Eve they traveled by train to General John Pershing’s Chaumont headquarters. Met by him the next morning, the Wilsons were driven in his Cadillac to the New York Fifth Division’s quarters. Walking in a light snow through ankle-deep mud, they reviewed the troops, after which they joined officer’s in a drafty, temporary building.
The Christmas Eve custom of the Hoovers would never have been publicly disclosed were it not for an enterprising reporter who dressed herself up in a large Girl Scouts uniform in 1931 and managed to pass for an older member of the group when they came to carol in the White House. The Hoovers matched one of their adult guests with a child guest who then escorted one another into the State Dining Room where they all sat down for a feast at a horseshoe-shaped table, topped by a mammoth Santa Claus with sleigh and reindeer. After the meal, in complete dark, the President and First Lady led the group up the stairs, the men carrying lit candles and the women ringing bells for the grand finale of the night – a sound movie.
Their successors had their own family traditions. All throughout the day of Christmas Eve, Eleanor Roosevelt dashed around town, appearing at various charitable fundraisers.
Getting back to the White House in time to appear at the annual dance her sons held for their young adult friends, she then joined the President at five in the evening where he lit the National Christmas Tree by a remote switch from the South Portico, and then delivered his annual holiday message, to the nation.
By the time the young adults had cleared out, their grandchildren, young children and toddlers, were gathered and ready for their grandfather the President to enchant with his dramatic reading to them of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
The custom would end in time for the First Lady to run over to St. Thomas Church, where she attended midnight service.
The first Christmas marked by Harry Truman as President was especially discouraging. Resenting the lack of privacy caused by his becoming President nine months earlier upon President Roosevelt’s death, Bess Truman returned to their Independence, Missouri home for the holiday as soon as she could. She expected her husband to join her as quickly as his work schedule permitted.
Unable to leave Washington until the morning of Christmas Eve but insisting he must be flown home despite dangerous conditions caused by a snowstorm. When he arrived, however, she exploded in anger: “So you’ve finally arrived. I guess you couldn’t think of any more reasons to stay away. As far as I’m concerned, you might as well have stayed in Washington.” Making President Truman uncomfortable and with a tremendous amount of work waiting for him back in Washington, he left her after two days. From there, he wrote a letter about their scene on Christmas, “I’m happier when I can see you – even when you give me hell I’d rather have no around than not.”
When the Eisenhowers, their son, daughter-in-law, and four grandchildren weren’t spending the holiday at their cottage on the Augusta, Georgia National Golf Course, they had a larger family group for Christmas Day dinners in the White House, including the First Lady’s uncle, mother, sister and her family and some of the President’s brothers and their families.
The Kennedy family also continued a tradition, though it was carried over from Jacqueline Kennedy’s childhood. They spent the two Christmases of the presidency with JFK’s extended family at his parents’ winter home in Palm Beach, staying in the nearby home of family friends.
Joined by the First Lady’s sister Lee Radziwill from London, the two women made the effort to pass on their own family tradition to their four children of putting on a nativity pageant. Jackie not only dressed and rehearsed her son John, daughter Caroline, nephew Tony and niece Tina but also their friend Gustavo Parades, the son of her Dominican maid Providencia Parades.
After realizing that the Secret Service detail guarding the First Family during Christmas the year before were spending it without their spouses and children, the First Lady encouraged them and other accompanying staff members to invite their families to join them. As for Caroline Kennedy, she was certain that the gifts she received that year were directly from the North Pole. After a talk about Santa Claus with the President before Christmas, he arranged for her to detail her wish list of presents to Mrs. Claus – a White House telephone operator.
Although Lyndon Johnson wanted to spend every Christmas at his LBJ Ranch in Texas, his wife finally insisted that, after acquiescing to his wishes four years in a row, they would stay in Washington and spend the holiday in the White House. Here is a lively, very vintage Swinging Sixties video showing the LBJ 1966 Christmas in Washington and Texas:
In 1967, she took great pleasure in having not only her husband and two daughters with her, but the President’s brother Sam, who was then living in the White House, her two sons-in-law, both of whom had married her daughters in White House weddings, and her first grandchild, a boy.
A year later, their last in the presidency, was markedly different. Knowing she would likely never live in Washington again, she impulsively decided to host a big Christmas Day party to gather all the local friends she had made since coming to Washington three decades earlier, and just got on the phone and called them all herself. After her friends left, the family opened their presents. With a phone call to Vietnam, however, came the sobering reminder that the absence of her sons-in-law was due to the fact that they were at the war front. “We had an early bedtime,” she recalled, “wrapped in that warming sense of family and Christmas and the hope of better days to come.”
For the Nixon family, the Christmas of 1970, celebrated in the White House, began with the generous gift from four anonymous individuals of flying sixty students from the Los Angeles Junior School for the Blind to the White House. Two years earlier a group of the students had sung for a visiting Mrs. Nixon the uplifting song, Climb Every Mountain from the musical feature film The Sound of Music. She invited them to someday visit the White House. Now, during the Holiday Season they again sang the inspirational song, their gratitude and excitement at being there highly evident.
The Nixons shared an early Christmas Eve dinner after which gifts were opened – including some for three other members of the family, their three dogs King Timahoe, Pasha and Vicky. President Nixon had insisted on it – and one gift he received from his son-in-law David Eisenhower (married to Julie Nixon) underlined his love of the pooches. It was the famous version of Jingle Bells, edited together from the sound of various tonal barking of dogs.
At dinner, the family engaged in a lively discussion about the book The Feminine Mystique about the changing role of women in American society already in evidence at the start of the new decade of the 70s. Nixon piped up that he’d like a copy of the book to read. Later, he retreated to his favorite Lincoln Sitting Room, making a note in his diary that it had been “one of the best Christmases we have ever had.” On Christmas Day, joined by both of the First Daughter’s parents-in-laws, as well as Mamie Eisenhower (David’s grandmother), the First Family had lunch, followed by watching a football game and then a screening of the film Nicholas and Alexandra.
As did the LBJs for most of their presidential holidays, the Fords and Carters spent their Christmas Days away from the White House. The Fords went annually to their rented winter resort lodge in Vail, Colorado. Jack Ford recalled how the holiday would start with all of the Secret Service agents joining in the athletic family’s mountain-skiing but as the days went by more and more were in the lodge.
The Carters kept to their tradition of returning to their rural hometown of Plains, Georgia, spending Christmas morning at the home of the President’s mother and Christmas Day at the home of the First Lady’s mother.
The Reagans had their own customs for how they spent the Holiday Season during the eight years of his Administration.
As they had when they lived in Los Angeles, the President and Mrs. Reagan and one or both of their two adult children, actress Patti Davis and dancer Ron Reagan, if they were visiting Washington, would spend Christmas Eve with their longtime friends Charles and Mary Wick and their adult children, who had grown up closely with Patti and Ron. The Wicks had moved east to Washington with the Reagans; Charles Wick, a former film TK, had accepted his friend’s offer to become the Reagan Administration Director of the United States Information Agency. One tradition the two families maintained was having a different person among them “play” Santa Claus each year, dressing up in a red suit and white beard and distributing gifts.
The President and First Lady then shared Christmas Dinner with any visiting family members in the White House. Usually within the next few days they then flew home to California to celebrate New Year’s Eve at “Sunnylands,” the desert estate of their longtime friends Walter and Lenore Annenberg.
In contrast, George and Barbara Bush found the wooded grounds and numerous cabins of Camp David to be the perfect winter setting large enough to accommodate their five adult children and their spouses and children.
They decided to spend all their White House Christmas Days there because it also meant that the Secret Service agents on their details could also spend the holiday with their own families as well.
In the main cabin, on Christmas Eve, the President would read The Night Before Christmas to his grandchildren and during one afternoon of winter tobogganing on sleds down a snowy hill, the First Lady broke her leg.
Along with the four Christmas holiday spent at Camp David with his parents, President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush also spent each one of their eight White House Christmases at Camp David with the extended family. Reflecting their strong ties to Texas, the Christmas Eve dinner would be Enchiladas and Tamales, Rice and Pinto Beans, while Christmas Day Lunch was roast turkey, cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, green beans, spinach salad, cranberry sauce, pecan pie and pumpkin pie.
With no permanent home of their own during all but two of their eight years during the presidency, Bill and Hillary Clinton especially loved being able to invite their families to share their Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in the White House during their entire tenure. Over those years, two nephews would be born; one to the First Lady’s brother and one to the President’s brother and the gathering brought together familiar faces.
For President Clinton, however, perhaps the most poignant was the only one of those eight where his mother, Virginia Kelley was in attendance, in 1993. She especially beamed with pride in being able to pose with her son, now the President of the United States, in front of the various historical places in the mansion. None of the other guests were able to detect that her coiffed hair, which she always gave great attention to with its signature white streak was, in fact, an expertly crafted wig.
Rather than relax after the holiday in the holiday majesty of the old mansion, however, she and her husband, the President’s stepfather, then hosted the Clintons at their Little Rock, Arkansas home before quickly flying out to ring in 1994 in Las Vegas where they were the special guests for a performance by family friend Barbra Streisand. Five days later, to the shock of even her son the President, she died of recurring complications from breast cancer.
- Christmas at the White House: The President’s Presents, Shopping, Giving & Getting Gifts, Part 1 of 4 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Christmas at the White House: Trees, Gingerbread Houses, Mennorahs, Celebrity Santas & Other Innovations, Part 2 (carlanthonyonline.com)
- Christmas at the White House: First Families & Holiday Charities, Part 3 (carlanthonyonline.com)
Categories: Bill Clinton, Christmas at the White House, First Families, First Ladies, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Presidential Christmas, Presidential Homes, Presidents, Ronald Reagan, The LBJs, The Wilsons