The new tradition of lighting the National Christmas Tree, started just a year earlier, was the last thing President Calvin Coolidge wanted to do. Though the event had enjoyed widespread publicity he simply lacked the heart to participate. It was only a last minute change of heart that made it come to pass. That Christmas President Coolidge and his family were still mourning the unexpected passing of his youngest son, Calvin Coolidge Jr.
It was not the first nor would it be the last difficult Christmas in the White House. The history of Christmas is not well documented in the United States prior to 1870, when Congress passed the laws making it a national holiday. Nevertheless, official records and private journals confirm that every man who has served in the presidential office has observed Christmas.
The “first” American Christmas was observed as George Washington and his revolutionary army crossed the Delaware. Christmas 1777 was a brutal affair as Washington and his troops endured the harsh winter weather at Valley Forge with little in the way of provisions — or cause for celebration. But as the years passed President Washington finally found Christmas celebration in retirement at Mount Vernon in 1783. He called it “an event worthy of rousing cheers, song, pistol shots and firecrackers”.
As with all Christmas celebrations White House parties have long featured children as key participants. While in office President John Adams hosted a Christmas party for his granddaughter, Susannah. As with children anywhere this party featured a few accidents. One partygoer broke a dish while Susannah herself bit the nose off of a wax doll intended as a gift for another child.
In 1805, President Thomas Jefferson delighted his one hundred Christmas party guests by playing the fiddle. In fact, Christmas has proven to be a time when the presidential hair can be let down.
President Andrew Jackson was known for hosting Christmas parties for a local orphanage and engaging in an annual snowball fight on the grounds of the White House. These parties were thrown after the untimely passing of Jackson’s wife. During the season President Jackson shared the White House with relatives.
One day, a nephew asked him “Did you ever hear of a Christmas without presents, Uncle Andrew?”
“Yes,” the President replied, ” once there was a little boy who never had a toy, and when his mother died he was all alone in the world. I was that boy”. This sad experience lead President Jackson to insist that there were plenty of presents under the tree for those children who shared Christmas with him in the White House.
President Franklin Pierce is widely hailed as the first president to have a Christmas tree in the White House. President Grover Cleveland is noted for being the first to have Christmas lights on the presidential tree. And President Theodore Roosevelt is the only president who banned Christmas trees in the White House, citing environmental concerns.
Christmas parties have famously gone wrong in the White House, too. In 1929, a party hosted by President Herbert Hoover was interrupted by fire alarms in the West Wing, where an electrical fire had broken out and destroyed the Oval Office. President Hoover is said to have invited guests to join him in watching firefighters put out the blaze while still carrying their drinks in hand.
One of the most unusual Christmas parties held at the White House occurred in 1857 under the Bucanan Administration. James Bucanan was without a First Lady and was widely considered to be a “lonely man”. He put out invites to his Christmas party to thirty American Indians from the tribes of the Poncas, Pawnees and Pottowatomies. According to news reports the Pottowatomies arrived in “citizens dress” but the others “‘were in their grandest attire, and more than profuse of paint and feathers”.
Modern Presidential observance of Christmas follows well-established traditions. Since 1953 each U.S. president has sent out “official” Christmas cards. In 2004, more than 1 million recipients around the world received a Christmas card from President and Mrs. Bush. These cards usually go through months of design coordination, usually under the direction of the First Lady.
Just as each occupant differs in the White House so too does Christmas celebration differ from one administration to the next. While the Franklin Roosevelt family enjoyed intimate and festive Christmases in the White House the Trumans almost always took their Christmas back home to Missouri.
But while personal celebration in the “people’s house” differs the White House never fails to reflect the taste of Christmas in modern popular society. From flocked trees to collectible ornaments, the White House has seen it all through the years.