Christmas with the Presidents

Holidays at the White House have evolved over the years from intimate family gatherings to national celebrations, ranging from an indoor snowball fight between grandchildren, to a first lady ride on a cherry picker!  Discover how U.S. Presidents of the past celebrated Christmas.

“Christmas Frolics at the White House From the Time of Washington to the Present Day,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 21, 1913

 “Old Hickory,” President Andrew Jackson, threw an elaborate party for his grandchildren in 1835, which included games, dancing, and an indoor snowball fight at the White House.

Christmas Frolics at the White House From the Time of Washington to the Present Day,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 21, 1913

In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison was the first to have a decorated indoor Christmas tree in the White House. It was adorned with candles, toys, and ornaments for the Harrison’s grandchildren.

“A Christmas Tree at the White House,” Waterbury Evening Democrat (Waterbury, CT), December 23, 1889

Electricity was installed in the White House in 1891. Three years later, “tech-savvy” First Lady Frances Cleveland hung the first electric lights on the White House Christmas tree. 

“WHITE HOUSE CHRISTMAS,” The Meeker Herald (Meeker, CO), January 5, 1895

From 1897 to 1900, President William McKinley and his wife Ida chose to spend Christmas Day attending special church services, visiting with select friends, and dining quietly together.

“DINE ALONE,” The Topeka State Journal (Topeka, KS), December 25, 1900

Noted conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt did not approve of cutting down trees for decoration and in 1901 banned a Christmas tree from the White House. In 1903, the Roosevelt’s hosted a large carnival for 500 children that included music, dancing, and ice cream shaped in the form of Santa Claus. However, Roosevelt’s son Archie defied the “no tree” policy that year and hid a small decorated tree in the closet in the upstairs sewing room. 

“SOCIAL HAPPENINGS AT THE NATION’S CAPITAL,” The Minneapolis Journal (Minneapolis, MN), December 19, 1903

The children of President William Taft are believed to be the first to have placed a Christmas tree in the Blue Room in 1912, a tradition that continues today. That year, the President and First Lady were away on a trip to Panama, so their children erected the tree as a surprise gift for family guests to the White House. 

“Tree at White House,” The San Francisco Call, December 26, 1912

Like the McKinleys, President Woodrow Wilson and his wife Edith chose to celebrate the holiday with quiet family time in 1916. 

“Christmas Starts Early in the White House,” The Tacoma Times (Tacoma, WA), December 25, 1916

The lighting of the first National Christmas Tree was done by President Calvin Coolidge, who expanded celebrations beyond the Blue Room to the outside public viewing area of the White House in 1923. 

“PRESIDENT AT COMMUNITY CHRISTMAS TREE,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 25, 1923

First Lady Lou Henry Hoover established the custom of decorating an “official” tree in the White House in 1929—a tradition that remains with the First Ladies. 

“The Hoover tree is not trimmed by somebody else—it is trimmed by the family,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 22, 1929

President Franklin Roosevelt and and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt spent the Christmas holidays in the White House full of festivities, which included a reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, read by the president on Christmas Eve. 

“President to Read Dickens,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 22, 1940

It became a tradition of President Harry Truman’s family to go home to Independence, Missouri each Christmas. The President always made sure to stay in Washington, however, until after the staff party held on Christmas Eve. 

“KANSAS CITY—HOME FOR CHRISTMAS,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), December 23, 1948

“The President and Mrs. Eisenhower extend their best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,” with their Christmas card in 1953.

“The Eisenhowers’ Christmas Card,” New York Herald Tribune, December 19, 1953, p. 3

In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of selecting the theme of the official White House Christmas tree in the Blue Room. That year she chose to decorate the tree with the characters from the “Nutcracker Suite.” 

“Christmas Magic Comes to White House,” Washington Post, December 14, 1961, p. C21

President Lyndon Johnson and his family traditionally celebrated the holidays at their Texas ranch, but in 1967, the family spent their first Christmas at the White House, just two weeks after their daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson, married Marine Captain Charles S. Robb in a ceremony held in the East Room. 

“WHITE HOUSE WEDDING,” Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1967, p. A1

The hostage crisis in Iran dominated the holiday celebrations of 1979 and 1980. In 1979, the National Christmas Tree and fifty surrounding trees each showed a single light, one for each of the hostages. President Jimmy Carter promised to turn on the rest of the lights when the hostages were freed. Because the hostages were still in captivity, the following year the lights on the tree were turned on for 417 seconds on Christmas Eve—one second for each day they had been held.

“National Yule Tree Lights Stay Off for Hostages,” Washington Post, December 14, 1979, p. A26

In 1981, future First Lady Barbara Bush took the first of twelve rides in a cherry-picker to hang the star at the top of the National Christmas Tree.

“‘May I come down now?’,” Chicago Tribune, December 2, 1981, p. 2

President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy traditionally split their holidays between Washington, DC and their ranch in Simi Valley, California. In 1983, the Reagans and their children celebrated their 3rd Christmas in the White House with several close friends, and enjoyed a “roast turkey dinner that included ‘turnip sleighs with spiced apple puree’ and ‘packages with ribbons made of sherbet.”

“Reagans, friends celebrate Christmas,” Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1983, p. 28

 

Let’s Talk Comics: Folklore, Comics, and Santa Claus

Dr. Daniel Peretti, Assistant Professor of Folklore at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, is the author of “Superman in Myth and Folklore” (University Press of Mississippi, 2017), as well as other essays on folklore, myth, and popular culture. His current research focuses on Santa Claus, ritual, and the traditions of Christmas. Here Dr. Peretti answers […]