Published: 4-09-2012, 15:17

Christmas in the White House: White House Christmas Parties

Christmas in the White House

Christmas in the White House: A Child’s Christmas in the White House

Christmas in the White House: White House Charity

Christmas in the White House: Greetings from the White House

Christmas in the White House: A Discontinued New Year’s Custom

Christmas in the White House: White House Christmas Firsts

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.