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Christmas in the White House

The White House became the official residence of the president of the United States in 1800. Throughout the nineteenth century, it was referred to as the President’s House, the President’s Palace, or the Executive Mansion. President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) dubbed it the White House in 1901. As Christmas became a more important holiday in the United States, White House Christmas celebrations expanded beyond family festivities to include public acts of charity, political functions, activities dedicated to enhancing public relations, and special observances, such as the NATIONAL CHRISTMAS TREE-lighting ceremony.

Christmas was not a popular holiday in some regions of the United States during the early years of the Republic (see CHRISTMAS IN COLONIAL AMERICA). Nevertheless, a number of the early American presidents, such as George Washington (1732-1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), James Madison (1751-1836), and James Monroe (1758-1831), came from Virginia, a state whose inhabitants tended to keep the old English custom of celebrating a jolly Christmas (see also CHRISTMAS IN COLONIAL WILLIAMSBURG, VIRGINIA). Yet it was the Massachusetts-born John Adams (1735-1826) and his wife Abigail (1744-1818) who first occupied the White House upon its completion in November of 1800 and who hosted the first White House Christmas party in that same year. According to the story that grew up about the party, Mrs. Adams could not get the newly constructed building properly heated, in spite of the huge amounts of wood she burned in its fireplaces. The shivering guests left as soon as they deemed it polite.
In 1811 noted hostess Dolley Madison (1768-1849) gave a sumptuous Christmas dinner party, over which she presided dressed in a gown of purple velvet adorned with pearls. Her serious-minded husband, President James Madison, wore his usual plain black clothing. Dolley’s sisters Anna and Lucy attended, as did writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) and many notable political figures, such as Secretary of State James Monroe, Henry Clay (1777-1852), and John Randolph (1773-1833). The Madisons served a Virginia-style feast, featuring turkeys, chickens, ducks, wild game, vegetables, and puddings (see PLUM PUDDING). After dinner guests and hosts entertained each other with GAMES, singing, and dancing.
Some White House Christmas parties have served diplomatic pur-poses as well as social ones. In 1860 President James Buchanan (1791-1868) hosted a delegation of Pawnee Indians at a White House Christmas party. In 1874 President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) and his wife welcomed the King of Hawaii to their Christmas party. Special decorations were devised for this important occasion.
Needless to say, many first ladies have been accomplished hostesses. In 1929 fire struck the White House on Christmas Eve. Lou Hoover kept the dinner party going in the formal dining room, while her husband President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) rushed to the site of the fire in the West Wing. Although 16 fire engines answered the alarm, some of the President’s guests stayed through the entire party without ever realizing that the building was on fire.
Throughout the late twentieth century the number of Christmas parties hosted at the White House grew. Some of these parties re-flected the personal tastes of the president or first lady. For example, in 1957 Mamie Eisenhower threw a Christmas tea party for women reporters. Some parties, once instituted, were taken up by succeeding administrations. The Kennedys threw a variety of specialized Christmas parties, including one for the members of the diplomatic corps, and another for their children. The Johnsons maintained both of these events.
By the 1970s the first family was expected to entertain several segments of Washington society at Christmas time. In 1979 the Carters gave a Christmas ball for 1,000 people, in large part members of Congress and their spouses. White House chefs loaded the buffet tables with ham, roast beef, smoked salmon, crab claws, cheese rings, artichokes, mushrooms, and more. The very next night the Carters threw another Christmas party for 500 members of the Washington press corps. By the time the Clintons threw a Christmas party for the press in 1994, the guest list numbered 2,000.

The very first White House Christmas party, held in 1800 by President John Adams and his wife Abigail, included special festivities for children. The White House’s first children’s Christmas party did not end on a happy note, however. Susanna, the Adams’s grandchild, showed the other children the dolly dish set she had received for Christmas. One little girl became so envious that she broke the tiny dishes into pieces. At this provocation Susanna flew into a rage and bit the nose and cheeks off her companion’s doll. The President himself had to exercise his diplomatic skills and executive authority to break up the fight and restore order.
In 1805 Thomas Jefferson threw a Christmas party for his six grandchildren. As he was a widower, Dolley Madison, the wife of his secretary of state, James Madison, acted as hostess. One hundred children attended and were entertained by the President himself, who churned out rollicking tunes on the violin.
In 1835 President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845) invited a large number of Washington children to a Christmas Day party in the White House. He treated them to a fancy feast, prepared by his French chef and served in the formal dining room. After dinner he supplied the children with cotton snowballs and permitted them to have a snowball fight in the East Room.
Teddy Roosevelt’s wife Edith once threw a Christmas party for 600 children, the sons and daughters of administration officials. It included a special dinner in the state dining room, at which the President helped serve the children their food.
First Lady Nancy Reagan threw a Christmas party for 178 hearing-impaired children in 1981. She hired professional entertainers, also hearing-impaired, to lead the festivities and presented each child with a Christmas GIFT.

Giving to charity became an important aspect of nineteenth-century Christmas celebrations (see also CHRISTMAS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA). According to certain popular stories, the generosity of some of the nineteenth-century presidents and their families reflected this trend. According to one account, President Andrew Jackson once brought sweets and toys to a local orphanage at Christmas time. The orphans’plight moved him, as his parents had both died by the time he was fourteen, leaving him without a home. When asked by the children about SANTA CLAUS, he reminisced that as a child he had not known of him, nor had he celebrated Christmas.
Abraham Lincoln’s (1809-1865) son Tad was reported to have a large heart at Christmas time. According to one story, in 1863 he insisted on shipping the books his parents bought him for Christmas to soldiers fighting the Civil War. His father agreed with the plan, requesting that food and blankets also be added to the box. On Christmas Day in 1864 Tad brought some poor children home with him to the White House. The cook refused to feed them, but Tad went over her head and appealed to his father, who, pleased with his son’s generosity, ordered that each be fed a turkey dinner.
In 1883 the sons and daughters of some of Washington, D.C.’s leading citizens joined CHRISTMAS CLUBS dedicated to helping the needy at Christmas time. With the aid of adults, the clubs organized charitable Christmas dinners for some of the capital’s poor children. Young Nellie Arthur served as president of district II, and, accompanied by her father President Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886), she presided over a dinner for 500 needy children.
Presidential Christmas charity continued throughout the twentieth century. Grace Coolidge, wife of President Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) handed out gifts at the offices of the SALVATION ARMY. President Hoover’s wife Lou also gave to the needy, as did Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), who personally visited poor neighborhoods on Christmas Day, bearing food and gifts. President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) provided two needy families — one white and the other black—with Christmas gifts and dinner, a custom which he preferred not to publicize. In 1961 Jacqueline Kennedy brought gifts to 200 children at the District of Columbia’s Children’s Hospital. Nancy Reagan visited the same hospital at Christmas time twenty years later.

Franklin (1882-1945) and Eleanor Roosevelt were the first presidential couple to send large numbers of cards at Christmas time. These cards were specially prepared by the White House engraver. During the time of the Eisenhower presidency it became customary for the president to send an official, presidential CHRISTMAS CARD to the members of his cabinet, heads of state, senators, congressional representatives, and other government workers. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) was an amateur artist, and during his administration some of his own paintings were featured on the White House Christmas card. His portrait of Abraham Lincoln, executed from a black-and-white photograph, appeared on the White House card one year. In another year the White House Christmas card featured one of his landscape paintings.
Since Eisenhower’s time, White House Christmas cards have usually depicted the president and first lady, or offered views of the White House at Christmas time. Subsequent presidents often commissioned painters or photographers to produce images specially for the White House Christmas card.
Throughout the twentieth century ordinary Americans became in-creasingly fond of the custom of sending Christmas cards. The numbers of cards sent from the White House during each administration seem to reflect this overall trend. The Nixons sent 37,000 Christmas cards in 1969. In 1980 the Carters sent over 100,000 cards. During the 1990s President and Mrs. Clinton customarily ordered 300,000 specially designed White House Christmas cards from Hallmark Cards.

Beginning in 1800 and continuing throughout the nineteenth century, American presidents hosted a kind of NEW YEAR’S DAY reception at the White House called a levee. (A similar event was held on July 4). Members of the administration, government officials, and other distinguished guests came to the White House to offer the president their best wishes for the new year. Ordinary citizens, too, were welcome at these events. As Washington and the nation grew, more and more people attended the New Year’s Day levee.
By the 1920s the event had become an ordeal for the president and his wife. In 1929 members of Congress, the Supreme Court, the diplomatic corps, military officers, and government officials began arriving at 11:00 a.m. President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover received their guests on the north portico, shaking each person’s hand and exchanging a few words with them. They began to receive the general public at noon and greeted 6,300 people before the day was done. After that, they decided that the nation had simply grown too large for such a ceremony and discontinued it.

President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) set up the first CHRISTMAS TREE in the White House in 1853. Mrs. Coolidge organized the first CHRISTMAS CAROL sing in 1923, with the help of choristers from the First Congregational Church. The ceremonies surrounding the lighting of the National Christmas Tree got their start in 1923 under President Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge also composed the first presidential Christmas message to the American people. The first official White House Christmas card dates back to the Eisenhower administration. Jimmy Carter was the first president to participate in a public menorah-lighting ceremony held in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Park in 1979 (see HANUKKAH). Subsequent presidents also participated in menorah-lighting ceremonies. In a 1997 Oval Office ceremony, William Jefferson Clinton became the first president to light a meno-rah inside the White House.

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  • Hopping John
  • Christmas in the White House
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