America loves its traditions, and nowhere is this more evident than in the most famous home of them all, the White House. This is particularly noticeable around Christmastime, when White House holiday traditions come to the forefront, and American presidents fill large chunks of their schedule with these feel-good activities.
While it now takes 400 staff members simply to decorate all the public areas, and considerable work goes into making a 300-pound white chocolate White House replica each year (a tradition that started in the 1960s), almost all of the White House Christmas traditions have an interesting origin story involving one or more past presidents.
Popular White House Holiday Traditions
The First White House Party
In 1800, President John Adams and First Lady Abigail Adams decided to throw a bash for their 4-year old granddaughter, Susanna, starting the White House Christmas party custom that continues to this day.
The First “Frolic”
Around the holiday season, it is common for various activities geared towards children to take place at the White House. The inspiration for these types of events came in 1835, when President Andrew Jackson organized his “frolic” for the children. This was a massive affair involving games, an extensive meal, and finished off with the grand finale – an indoor “snowball” fight using specially made cotton balls.
The First White House Tree
In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison introduced the first Christmas tree into the White House, having it elaborately decorated with toys, candy, and ornaments. Although this was the first White House tree, not all presidents have stuck with the tradition, depending on where they spend the holidays and if there are any children present.
President Theodore Roosevelt is well-known for his love of nature and determined stance on conservation. For this reason, he did not believe in cutting down trees to be used as Christmas decoration, but went all out in other areas, perhaps to make up for this perceived lack of holiday cheer. He threw an enormous party for over 500 children with a meal, dance, party favors, and even an elaborate Santa Claus made entirely out of ice cream. Legend has it, however, that his son, Archie, still chose to sneak in a small tree for the holidays. In any case, Roosevelt is credited with starting the tradition of decorating a living fir tree on the White House grounds rather than cutting down a new tree.
In 1909, President William Taft and his children decorated a tree in the Blue Room. This was the first time that a tree had been decorated in a public area of the White House. This tradition continues today, as well.
The National Christmas Tree
President Calvin Coolidge took the public tree idea to another level in 1923 with the christening of the “National Christmas Tree” outside the White House in a public viewing area. Every year since, this massive evergreen has been lit, decorated, and designated as the National Tree, a tradition that has evolved over the years to include numerous other activities. The end of World War II and the Korean War were commemorated with the “Pageant of Peace”. This practice has continued, involving a solid month of festivities kicked off by the lighting of the tree. The “Pathway to Peace” refers to the walkway surrounding the National Christmas Tree which features 56 trees from each state and territory, all uniquely decorated and available for viewing by the public.
A Nutcracker Christmas
The very first themed White House tree was created in 1961 by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who chose to go with a Nutcracker motif. Choosing a theme has been standard practice ever since.
President Jimmy Carter became the first president to recognize this Jewish holiday when he lit the menorah during the Pageant of Peace in 1979, something that has continued as part of the annual White House holiday schedule.
Trees by the Dozen
In 1959, President Eisenhower set the bar for Christmas spirit by installing no less than 26 trees throughout every floor of the White House. This record was later shattered, however, by the Clinton administration’s whopping 36 trees in 1997 for a Santa’s workshop theme. It was also during Eisenhower’s tenure that NORAD’s Santa Tracker (North American Aerospace Defense Command) got its start.
Feeling the holiday spirit? Make sure to check out these other holiday articles from the Sporcle blog.