The White House – History of Christmas

Photo courtesy of The White House Historical Association

I listened to a charming podcast recently – The Millennial Homemakers where they interviewed Linda Dutile, a volunteer who helped decorate The White House this year. Linda answered all their questions about the application and selection process, what a typical day of decorating the nation’s home was like and other fun details.  Wouldn’t that be the best job ever!  I think I may try to apply!

It got me to thinking about the traditions in year’s past, so I did some research on The White House Historical Association website to share fun facts and photos.

First, the adorable photo above is of First Lady Betty Ford and her daughter, Susan, decorating holiday cookies in the White House solarium in December 1975.  My childhood memories are permanently planted in the 60s and 70s when Christmas, for me, was magical and kitchy.

President Coolidge turning on the switch for the “National Tree Lighting” in President’s Park. December 24, 1923.

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. President Calvin Coolidge was the first chief executive to preside over a public celebration during the holidays with the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in 1923. Since then, the White House has expanded its celebrations of the holidays and sharing the joy of the season with Americans through themed holiday decorations, traditions, and public events.

President Grover Cleveland’s Christmas tree

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 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.

In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas tree. She decorated a tree placed in the oval Blue Room with ornamental toys, birds, and angels modeled after Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet.

Here’s a fun fact sheet of Christmas traditions at The White House.  Just a few highlights…

The first White House Christmas party was held in December 1800. President John Adams and First Lady Abigail Adams gave it for their four-year-old granddaughter Susanna Boylston Adams, who was living with them. They invited government officials and their children to the party.

Maitre d’ and butler Alonzo Fields recalled President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cherished Christmas family tradition in his memoir, My 21 Years in the White House (1960): “They always braved the hazards of fire by having a Christmas tree lighted with candles in the East Hall. The family tradition included a reading of Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol by the President. The gathering of the family with the President and Mrs. Roosevelt, the President’s mother, the children, and grandchildren made a comely family group of four generations.”

The holiday season at the White House is celebrated with an abundance of glittering décor, decadent desserts, and fresh pine. One of the sweetest traditions at the Executive Mansion is the unveiling of the official holiday gingerbread house. Since the early 1970s, pastry chefs have created this intricately detailed, candy-adorned house for the enjoyment of the First Family and White House visitors alike. The tradition of displaying a gingerbread house in the White House at Christmas began with First Lady Patricia Nixon in 1972. Displayed in the State Dining Room, this delightful treat has a rich history that embodies the holiday spirit.  First Lady Patricia Nixon and daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower examine the intricate candy decorations. P.S. Julie, I’d love to have your dress…

The Eisenhower family steps from the North Entrance of the White House bearing holiday gifts. December 1957.

The record for the number of trees in the White House was held for many years by the Eisenhower administration when 26 trees filled every floor of the house. That mark has been eclipsed on several occasions, including the Clinton administration’s 36 trees in the 1997 theme of “Santa’s Workshop,” and the 2008 White House Christmas decorations of the Bush administration that included 27 trees as part of a theme of “A Red, White and Blue Christmas.” Most recently in 2018, the Trump administration had 41 Christmas trees and more than 40 topiary trees in the East Colonnade.

The National Christmas Tree Association has held a national competition since 1966 for the official White House Blue Room tree. To qualify, growers must first win their state or regional competitions. Being named National Grand Champion is a major achievement.  Here are helpful tips on how to care for your farm-grown Christmas tree.

Be sure to visit the White House Historical Association for even more content. I hope you enjoyed this fun history lesson. It makes me want to decorate more trees!

Note: All the content in this post is directly from the White House Historical Association and not my own.