The Christmas season is observed at the White House as a national celebration. Hundreds of staff members and volunteers work to bedazzle the public rooms for the holidays. Visitors flock to see the amazing holiday trees and décor and attend parties or personal guided tours. This tradition of decorating and entertaining often involves the assistance of the First Lady and her staff. But what we see today is the evolution of traditions. Let’s glance back in time.
President Benjamin Harrison was the first to stand a Christmas tree displaying toy ornaments and candles inside his living quarters of the White House in 1889. Bear in mind that the era was pre-electricity. Now, it’s been said that the month of December of that year was a trying one for the presidential family, with the loss of the sister of the First Lady and the young nephew of President Harrison. In fact, the President is noted to have sadly remarked, “This big house – about which I wander without any sense of its being a home.” But the spirit of Christmas then came. Per Mental Floss, “’ Little Ben’ wasn’t about to let the heartache spoil the most wonderful time of the year. After all, his grandkids were spending the holidays at the White House and, as he later said, ‘I am an ardent believer in the duty we owe ourselves at Christmas to make merry for children at Christmas time.’” Thus, the Christmas tree, described as the ‘most beautiful and perfect tree to be found in all the country,’ was placed on the second floor of the White House. And that, folks, is how the White House got its first tree.
Following Harrison’s presidency, not all families put up trees. In fact, early holiday celebrations at the White House were more private affairs, and decorations reflected the personal preferences of the President and his family. Though some Christmas parties were held, Nineteenth-century White House Christmases were generally simple. Per Whitehousehistory.org, the first electric lights placed on a family tree was in 1894, during the Presidency of Grover Cleveland. There were also many myths surrounding Theodore Roosevelt’s reaction to having a Christmas tree in the White House. Though the family attended religious services and gave gifts, they did not traditionally celebrate with a tree. This led some to suggest that Roosevelt objected to trees based on his beliefs in conservationism. But there is a lack of evidence to support that belief. On the contrary, in 1902, Archie Roosevelt snuck a small tree into the White House and hid it upstairs in a closet. He later revealed the decorated tree to his family. The President was amused and allowed it to continue while the family lived at the White House.
During Eisenhower’s presidency, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower regularly placed a tree in the Blue Room. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas tree displayed in the Blue Room in 1961. Her tree that year featured ornamental toys, birds, angels, and characters from the famed ballet “Nutcracker Suite.” This year, Biden’s White House Christmas decorations showcase the theme “Gifts from the Heart,” complete with flag stockings, trees with doves and red gift boxes, and tributes to “gift of family” and “gift of service.” Many people also fondly remember the magical transformation of the White House in 2020 during the Trump Administration, featuring “America the Beautiful” as the theme. In the Blue Room stood a large Fraser fir from West Virginia. Students across the country were asked to artistically depict what makes their state beautiful and showcase their masterpieces on the tree. There were also trees to honor Gold Star families and frontline workers.
The White House, also known as ‘The Executive Mansion’ and ‘The People’s House,’ offers elaborate displays to share the joy of the season. While Newsweek and some other news media outlets are knee-deep in ugly comparisons of “which First Lady decorated better,” going as far as trashing the previous administration’s decorations, we must rise above the pettiness and appreciate the hard work and distinctive styles on display from year to year. May we, and above all the negative news outlets, be reminded that Christmas is the season not to push divide, but rather to put differences aside and concentrate on the miracles that bind us.
*Please bear in mind that public tours of the White House are temporarily suspended. For up-to-date information about touring and visiting the White House, call 202-456-7041.