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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”