Oh, by Gosh, by Golly: Christmas at the White House

Christmas at the White House as it is orchestrated today is a very modern notion – First Ladies flanked by an army of support staff who prepare the year’s theme months in advance in anticipation of the holiday season began only in the mid 20th century. Historically, the First Family celebrated Christmas in private surrounded by family and friends as all of America did; the White House was viewed then as it is today as the symbol of enduring presidential authority and one of our nation’s most recognizable landmarks, but it was also where the First Family lived and thus, celebrated holidays.

The Cleveland family tree from 1894 (the first to be decorated using electric lights!).

It was often the duty of the children and grandchildren of the sitting President to trim the White House Christmas tree. The first President to have a tree put up in the Executive Mansion was Benjamin Harrison in 1889 – however, lavish parties thrown for the children or grandchildren of the President were a tradition started in the first few decades of American history. One of the more notable of these shindigs was seventh President Andrew Jackson’s “frolic”, a galvanizing event that included dancing, games, a tremendous feast, and an indoor snowball fight that featured specially crafted snowballs made of cotton. While we can be envious of President Jackson’s progeny until we’re irreversibly jaded, holding children’s events at the White House became a seasonal standard as the years passed, and grew to include more than just those related to the current president. In 1903 First Lady Edith Roosevelt held a children’s carnival at the White House to celebrate the coming of Christmas; it is recorded some 500 children were in attendance, amused by dancing, games, souvenirs, and an ice cream novelty in the shape of Santa.

The Roosevelts, while fans of Christmas, did not have a tree the first year of Theodore’s presidency. That such a potent symbol of Christmas was missing from the Executive Mansion was noted by reporters at the time, who spun a story claiming that Christmas trees were banned in the Roosevelt White House, as not having a tree matched with the President’s conservationist philosophy. Belief in these printed stories stretched even to one of the president’s sons, Archie Roosevelt (who was about seven at the time) – the following year, he managed to smuggle in a small tree and hide it in his closet. Eventually, when the tiny tinseled thing was discovered, President Roosevelt was so amused by his son’s antics that he made sure a tree was brought into the White House and decorated for the remainder of his two terms.

Artist’s rendition of the Roosevelt family discovering young Archie’s secreted Christmas tree.

The first chief executive to publicly celebrate Christmas at the White House was 30th President Calvin Coolidge, who in 1923 ordered that a large evergreen tree on the Ellipse (aka the President’s Park South) be decorated for all Americans to enjoy and ring in the holiday season with. Despite his efforts, the real mastermind behind the modern conception of a “White House Christmas” was none other than Jackie Kennedy, wife of 35th U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Perhaps as a way to distract herself from her husband’s constant infidelity, Jackie threw herself into planning Christmas at the Executive Mansion. In 1961 she selected “Nutcracker Suite” as the theme for the White House Christmas tree after Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s  ballet “Nutcracker”; the tree included toys, angels, birds, and characters from the ballet handcrafted by persons living with disabilities in the United States. The tree was placed in the Blue Room and has been ever since (credit where credit is due, it was actually Mamie Eisenhower who began placing the official White House tree in the Blue Room).

President Calvin Coolidge in 1923 presiding over the lighting of the National Christmas tree in Washington.
President and Mrs. Kennedy answering questions from reporters in 1960 in the Blue Room in front of the opulently decorated “Nutcracker Suite” Christmas tree.
The Eisenhower family poses in front of their Christmas tree in 1960, their last year in the White House. Fun fact: the Eisenhower’s held the record for the most number of Christmas trees on display at the White House until 1997, when the Clinton’s overshadowed their total of 26.

Since Jackie’s reassembly of what “Christmas at the White House” meant in the 1960’s, it has since fallen to the First Ladies to be the spear guiding the First Family and subsequently the nation towards the holiday season. Some of the more famous tree themes to have graced the Blue Room are Betty Ford’s 1975 “An Old-Fashioned Christmas in America” (over 3,000 ornaments made up of dried flowers and fruit, acorns, yarn, and straw were collected from Colonial Williamsburg volunteers adorned the tree, and antique portraits of children were lent by the American Museum of Folk Art to grace the walls of the Blue Room, completing the theme); Nancy Reagan’s 1988 “Old Fashion” tree (featured 300 wooden candles made by White House carpenters, hand-blown glass ornaments that had been used during the Eisenhower years, and the Pat Nixon state flower balls from 1969. Mrs. Reagan enjoyed upcycling as to not be frivolous with taxpayer money and often featured ornaments made by Second Genesis patients, a drug treatment program for teenagers in the D.C. area); and Laura Bush’s 2001 “Home for the Holidays” (artists from all 50 states and the District of Columbia were called upon to make miniature ornament replicas of America’s famous homes and places of worship).

Betty Ford’s “An Old-Fashioned Christmas in America” tree, 1975.
Nancy Reagan’s “Old Fashion” tree, 1988.
Laura Bush’s “Home for the Holidays” tree, 2001.

With the holiday season now upon us, we wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. While your celebrations may not be as sumptuous as that of the First Family, we hope you are able to spend the holidays surrounded by warmth, family, and love. Remember to thank a service member for their dedication. We will return in 2024 with titillating historic content! 

Written by Katherine Costanzo, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum.

*Author’s Note: Above the lobby at the Ronald Reagan Library are the Reagan Foundation offices where President and Mrs. Reagan often worked following his retirement from public office in 1989. Their offices have been left relatively untouched since both of their deaths, with certain items curated by the pair being changed out occasionally. A constant decoration in Mrs. Reagan’s office are the eight White House Christmas cards that the President sent out to friends, family, foreign dignitaries, and American Congressional members each year. Delicately framed on the wall across from her desk, these cards were said to make Mrs. Reagan very happy when she looked at them as they served as a reminder of the joyous celebrations held in the White House each December.*