Christmas at the White House: Historical Trivia Questions by Gregory Hilton

President George W. Bush and his family gather for the last time at Camp David on Christmas, December 25, 2008. Seated front row, Lauren Bush, Ashley Bush, Ellie LeBlond, Gigi Koch, Elizabeth Andrews, Marshall Bush, Pace Andrews, Walker Bush. Second row, John E. Bush, George P. Bush, Barbara Bush, Pierce Bush, former President George H.W. Bush, former First Lady Barbara Bush, President George W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, Jenna Hager, Top row, Mandi Bush, Sam LeBlond, Neil Bush, Ally Bush, Maria Bush, Bobby Koch, Doro Koch, Margaret Bush, Marvin Bush, Columba Bush, former Gov. Jeb Bush, Henry Hager, Noelle Bush, and Robert Koch.

QUESTIONS: When did the first Christmas Tree appear at the White House? Who sent the first Christmas cards? When was the first Christmas Party, the first tree lighting ceremony, the first official message and the first tree with a theme? Which President banned Christmas trees? Which President avoided all Christmas celebrations? Which President ordered the tree to be immediately decorated 26 days after Christmas was over? Are religious ornaments banned at the White House?

ANSWERS: The first time a Christmas Tree appeared in the White House was in 1856 during the administration of Franklin Pierce. It was placed in the center hallway as recognition for the children of the nearby New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.

  • Benjamin Harrison in 1889 was the first president to have a tree in the upstairs family quarters. It was decorated with tinsel and popcorn. He started the tradition which remains today.
  • The first president to have electric lights on a Christmas tree was Grover Cleveland. He was married in the Blue Room and had three small children by the time he finished his second term.
  • William McKinley downplayed Christmas celebrations, and there is no evidence the holiday was marked during his four years in the White House. The President avoided discussions of Christmas because it was a sensitive topic with his wife. The McKinley’s first daughter, Katherine (“Katie”), was born on Christmas Day in 1871 but passed away four years later of typhoid fever. Their second daughter, Ida, was born in 1873 but died four months later. Mrs. McKinley’s mother died at the same time and the future President’s wife suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never full recovered. She was an epileptic and after the President was assassinated, doctors said she was on the edge of insanity.
  • The president who banned Christmas trees was Theodore Roosevelt. He was responding to significant editorial opposition to cutting down trees. The newspapers felt it would lead to deforestation. Despite his objections, Roosevelt’s son Archie cut down a small tree on the White House lawn and placed it in his bedroom. During his second administration, Roosevelt was told by Gifford Pinchot of the U.S. Forest Service that Christmas trees were not harmful. He allowed a tree upstairs but it was not publicized or photographed.
  • The first White House Christmas Party was held in 1912. The hosts were the son and daughter of William Howard Taft. Their parents were in Panama, and 40 years later the son (Robert A. Taft) would be the Senate Majority Leader. Taft lifted the ban on Christmas trees. His favorite Christmas destination was Augusta, Georgia. This was considered unusual because the Republican Party had no support in Georgia or in the South.
  • The first Christmas Tree lighting ceremony at the White House was held during the Calvin Coolidge Administration in 1923. Woodrow Wilson attended a lighting ceremony in 1913 but it was at the U.S. Capitol. The first official White House Christmas cards and the first Christmas message were both from Coolidge.
  • The first President to broadcast a Christmas message was Herbert Hoover in 1929. On Christmas Eve that same year a fire destroyed much of the West Wing. It was rebuilt and the location of the presidential office was moved. The new Oval Office is the same one we know today.
  • Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 was the president who first started to send out large numbers of Christmas cards. FDR collected Christmas cards and had over 3000 different designs. They are periodically put on display at his presidential library. Electric light was rationed during WW II, and there was no tree lighting ceremony.
  • From 1948 to 1952 there was no White House Christmas Tree for Harry Truman. The building was being re-constructed. Truman had a Blair House Christmas Tree.
  • Dwight Eisenhower painted six of the eight Christmas gift prints he gave to the White House staff.
  • The tradition of a Christmas Tree theme dates back to Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961, and the first one was “Nutcracker Suite.” John F. Kennedy had to cancel his appearance at the 1961 tree lighting ceremony because his father had suffered a stroke. Among the rarest Christmas cards in the White House collection are the 30 personally signed by Kennedy in November 1963 prior to his death.
  • Lyndon Johnson lit the National Christmas Tree on December 22, 1963. He had come directly from the service at the Lincoln Memorial which marked the end of the 30 day mourning period for John F. Kennedy.
  • Pat Nixon’s theme was velvet and satin balls representing each of the 50 states. Richard Nixon spoke at the tree lighting in 1969 and anti-war protesters could be clearly heard in the background.
  • Betty Ford emphasized thrift in an era of inflation and the theme of her tree featured homemade items which had been recycled.
  • Rosalynn Carter asked the National Association of Retarded Citizens to make the trimmings. She planted the present National Christmas Tree on the ellipse in 1978. Its predecessor had been destroyed in a wind storm. The tree was only partially lit in 1979 because of the energy crisis. In 1980 the tree was lit for only 417 seconds, each second symbolizing one day of captivity of the Americans hostages in Iran.
  • The President who ordered the tree to be immediately decorated 26 days after Christmas was Ronald Reagan. The American hostages in Iran were to return to the United States on January 21st, 1981, and he wanted the tree to be lit in their honor. In 1986, Nancy Reagan had a Mother Goose theme for the family tree.
  • In 1991, Barbara Bush had needlepoint tree ornaments.
  • In 1998, Hillary Clinton had “A Winter Wonderland” theme.
  • In 2001, Laura Bush selected “Home for the Holidays” and artists from all 50 states designed miniature replicas of historic houses. In 2002 it was state birds, and the 2007 theme was “Holiday in the National Parks.” “A Red, White and Blue Christmas” was featured in 2008. The tree was hung with 369 ornaments hand-decorated by artists who had been selected by their members of Congress.
  • In 2009, Michelle Obama was criticized for referring to a “Holiday Tree” rather than a Christmas tree. The accusation was false and she never made that statement.The White House did have a problem last year when Simon Doonan of Barney’s New York was commissioned to produce the tree. In the White House storage unit he found 800 “hideous” silver balls. He sent them out across the country to have citizens decorate them.The problem was that someone should have checked them out before hanging them on the tree.
  • The balls and hand-made paper mache ornaments included images of transvestite Hedda Lettuce and Chairman Mao. Another ornament added President Obama to Mount Rushmore. The White House press office said they were “unaware” of the decorations, and they were removed. There is nothing controversial about the 2010 tree.

The controversy concerning religious ornaments is about the Capitol Christmas tree not the White House tree. Each year a different state is selected to supply the Capitol tree, and school children from that state are invited to create ornaments. The criteria is established by the Architect of the Capitol and the U.S. Forestry Service, not the White House.
In 2007, Vermont told its schools that “ornaments with a religious theme are not acceptable,” and Montana repeated the same message in 2008. In 2009, the “Alliance Defense Fund” threatened to sue Arizona if they followed the same policy. Their suit was to be on behalf of a mother whose son wanted to submit an ornament saying “Happy Birthday Jesus” and another depicting a manger scene with the infant Christ. The ban was lifted.

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