In 1800, John Adams became the first president of the United States to live in the “Executive Mansion,” so named until a century later when Theodore Roosevelt officially designated it the White House, the name we use today. That same year, Adams and his wife, Abigail, hosted a Christmas party in their new home featuring their granddaughter, Susanna.
Abigail oversaw the planning of this event. The decorations were the greenery of the season, typical of the time, and a small orchestra provided music for the guests. Following dinner came the singing of carols accompanied by cakes and punch. A friend of Susanna’s broke one of her new doll dishes, and in revenge Susanna bit the nose off the friend’s doll. An article relating this squabble notes, “It is said that President Adams stepped in to intervene and make sure that the incident didn’t escalate.”
This first White House Christmas reflected the customs by which that holiday was celebrated at the time, excluding, of course, the poor doll’s missing nose. For more than 200 years now, these celebrations have reflected both the values of the presidential family and those of the nation at large.
Old Hickory’s Holiday Hijinks
For the first 60 years or so, Christmas at the White House was much more of a subdued affair than it is today. As in Adams’s time, greens might be used to decorate the White House, and meals shared with family friends and political acquaintances might underscore the occasion. But Christmas for the presidents, their wives, children, and visitors usually followed the old ways of church-going and family-centered activities.
Andrew Jackson proved the exception to the rule. He had already broken social conventions when, at his 1829 inauguration, thousands of supporters (many of them old comrades in arms from his frontier days) showed up at the White House, pushing and shoving their way inside to congratulate “Old Hickory,” breaking furniture and leaving muddy boot tracks on the floors.
Six years later, Jackson hosted an elaborate Christmas party for his grandchildren and a number of other youngsters. These festivities included songs, food, and dancing, but two events made this occasion special. By this time, hanging Christmas stockings by the fireplace was becoming common. Jackson’s grandchildren fixed their stockings to the mantel, and then persuaded Jackson to do the same for the first time in his life.
Even more exciting was the artificial snowball fight designed by the president. No snow lay on the White House lawn, but Jackson had special “snowballs” made up of cotton. While he and the other adults stood on the sidelines, the children dashed around the room, pelting one another with snowballs to the cheers of the grownups.
Almost 80 years later, Washington’s Evening Star related that Vice President Martin Van Buren “joined the youthful throng in their games of ‘blind man’s bluff,’ ‘puss in the corner,’ or ‘forfeits,’ or while the little girls tried to catch him under the mistletoe bough that hung from the big chandelier.” At the end of the evening, “the little guests marched past the President, each in turn throwing him a kiss and bidding him a ‘Good night, general.’”
In 1903, Theodore and Edith Roosevelt threw an even larger extravaganza by inviting more than 500 children to a White House Christmas party, minus the snowballs.
Today, the White House decorations and festooned trees continue to awe adolescent visitors.
Trees, Ornamentals, and Creative First Ladies
German immigrants introduced the Christmas tree to America. By the mid-19th century, trees were being sold commercially in cities, to be taken home and adorned with home-crafted decorations.
Although accounts differ, President Benjamin Harrison’s White House was likely the first to feature an indoor Christmas tree. The year was 1889, and the tree was decorated with family ornaments. In 1895, the young wife of Grover Cleveland, Frances, trimmed their tree with angels and sleds, beneath which she placed a replica of the White House. Particularly significant, however, were the evergreen’s electric lights. News of Frances Cleveland’s glittering tree inspired many people to do away with the more dangerous candles that were then traditionally affixed to the boughs.
With the 20th century, the White House Christmas tree took on new significance. In 1923, Calvin Coolidge oversaw the lighting of a National Christmas Tree. During Dwight Eisenhower’s stint in office, the erection of a tree on the Ellipse illuminated by thousands of lights became a tradition that continues to this day. First lady Mamie Eisenhower is also generally credited with establishing the Blue Room as the place for the main indoor Christmas tree.
In 1961, Jacqueline Kennedy first created a theme-based Christmas tree for the Blue Room, in this case choosing ornaments representative of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.” The first lady also threw herself into decorating other parts of the White House, placing a tree in every room and using over 1,000 yards of ribbon to create a masquerade of snow.
Other first ladies have followed in her footsteps, choosing themes for the trees and lavishly decorating the premises. In 2016, for instance, first lady Michelle Obama made her theme “The Gift of the Holiday,” which emphasized different cultures; the following year, first lady Melania Trump chose “Time-Honored Traditions,” featuring trees decked out with ornaments from all 50 states. These efforts usually make the national news, inspiring some in the public to try their own hand at creating a theme-based holiday.
Service to Others
On Christmas Day, 1864, Tad Lincoln asked several newsboys he’d met to come to the White House to warm up and enjoy a hot meal. Though beleaguered by the war with the South and by political enemies in D.C. and in the press, President Lincoln nonetheless invited the boys to stay for supper. These on-the-spot invitations are unimaginable in today’s environment of tight security, but many of our presidents and first ladies have marked the Christmas season with similar acts of charity.
The Christmas of 1929, for instance, was the first such holiday in what would become the Great Depression, and Lou Hoover, the wife of President Herbert Hoover, helped with at least two charitable events. On Dec. 23, she assisted at Washington’s Central Union Mission “in distributing bags of toys and Christmas good things to hundreds of boys and girls whose Christmas would otherwise be cheerless.” In doing so, she was continuing an act of charity begun by her White House predecessor, Grace Anna Coolidge. The following day, Mrs. Hoover helped hand out baskets of food with the Salvation Army.
As for so many other Americans, Christmas for those who have called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue their home means giving as well as receiving.
A Tie That Binds
Nov. 30, 2023, marks the 100th anniversary of the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. This year, the 19-foot tree hails from Ashe County, North Carolina, where siblings Amber Scott and Alex Church together operate Cline Church Nursery. Before cutting the tree, Alex said, he and his family gathered to pray for its journey. As in times past, the lighting ceremony features music and officially welcomes the season to the White House and to the nation.
For generations, Americans have treasured such anecdotes about Christmas and the White House. They remind us of the goodness in our country and its people.
A long-standing custom in Franklin Roosevelt’s household was to gather the family around the fireplace on Christmas Eve, where Roosevelt read aloud from Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” In his Christmas Greeting to the Nation on Dec. 24, 1936, President Roosevelt mentioned this tradition, and then quoted “the pledge of Old Scrooge” found near the end of this classic story: “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
At the end of his address, Roosevelt offered these reassurances to a nation battered by the Great Depression: “We of the Western Hemisphere have this year rendered special tribute to the spirit of Christmas, for we have pledged anew our faith in the arbitrament of reason and the practice of friendship. To that faith we bear witness tonight. May that faith make us happy today and tomorrow and through all the coming year.”
Reason, friendship, faith—these are excellent guidewords for all Americans seeking the old Christmas message, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”
And to my Epoch Times readers, I resort, as did President Roosevelt, to the final words of Dickens’s classic Christmas tale: “God Bless Us, Every One!”
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Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.