A Brief History of Christmas Traditions at the White House
The White House observance of Christmas before the twentieth century was not an official event. First families decorated the house modestly with greens and privately celebrated the Yuletide with family and friends. The first White House Christmas tree, decorated with candles and toys, was placed in the second floor oval room, then used as a library and family parlor, in 1889 for President Benjamin Harrison and his family. In 1894, three years after electricity was introduced in the White House, the first electric lights on a family tree delighted the young daughters of President Grover Cleveland. In 1909, President William H. Taft’s children helped decorate the first tree on the state floor in the Blue Room.
The White House at Christmas traditionally has been a magical place for children. From the earliest times memorable parties have been held for the president’s children or grandchildren. One of the most elaborate was President Andrew Jackson’s “frolic” for the children of his household in 1834. This party included games, dancing, a grand dinner, and ended with an indoor “snowball fight” with specially made cotton balls.
President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt hosted a “carnival” during the 1903 Christmas season for 500 children including dinner, dancing, musical entertainment, souvenirs, and a special treat in the form of ice cream formed in the shape of Santa and other Christmas novelties. President Roosevelt, an avowed conservationist, did not approve of cutting trees for Christmas decorations. However, his son Archie defied the ban and smuggled in a small tree that was decorated and hidden in a closet in the upstairs sewing room.
President Calvin Coolidge was the first chief executive to preside over a public celebration of the Christmas holidays with the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in 1923. Today, the Christmas Pageant of Peace, a major event held annually on the Ellipse since 1954, includes the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. This celebration respects the holiday worship of all faiths and features the appearance of the first family to light the tree and host live musical and dance performances.
First Lady Lou Henry Hoover established the custom of decorating an official tree in the White House in 1929. Since that time, the honor of trimming the Christmas tree on the state floor has belonged to our first ladies. The tree stands in the oval Blue Room, an elegant space honored as the center of holiday splendor. In 1961 First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas tree. That year the tree was decorated with ornamental toys, birds, angels and characters from the “Nutcracker Suite” ballet. For the American Flowers Tree in 1969, First Lady Patricia Nixon arranged for disabled workers in Florida to make velvet and satin balls featuring each states official flower.
Over her eight White House holiday seasons, First Lady Hillary Clinton showcased the talents of America’s artistic communities. First Lady Laura Bush varied the decorations, including the themes of “All Creatures Grand and Small in 2002” highlighting her love of animals and the importance of pets to White House history and a patriotic “A Red, White and Blue Christmas” in 2008. The theme had been inspired by letters from Americans that began arriving after September 11th suggesting the White House have a red, white and blue Christmas. First Lady Michelle Obama announced the 2010 White House Christmas theme of “Simple Gifts” and she explained, “The greatest blessings of all are the ones that don’t cost a thing: the time that we spend with our loved ones, the freedoms we enjoy as Americans and the joy we feel from reaching out to those in need.”