What happens in the White House has always been of interest to Americans, particularly how the President and his family celebrate the holidays.
The very first Christmas, in what some folks then called “the President’s Palace,” was pretty much a disaster. Second President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, had just moved into their new official residence in late 1800s and were scheduled to host a Christmas-day reception for members of Congress. They kept the fireplaces in the house roaring for days before the event in a futile effort to dry the newly plastered walls and warm the mansion.
On Christmas day, however, the house was cold and damp. Most of the guests kept their coats on and many left early. By Jan. 1, the plaster had dried and the building had warmed comfortably for the New Year’s Day reception that turned out to be a big success. For many years after that, it was an important part of the holiday season in the White House because it gave citizens, not just governmental officials, an opportunity to drop by and shake the President’s hand and wish him a happy New Year.
While Abraham Lincoln was greeting people at the 1865 reception, he noticed a large group of Black Americans on the lawn and invited them in. President Theodore Roosevelt is said to have shaken hands with 8,000 people on Jan. 1, 1907. Lincoln’s son, Tad, rounded up a band of hungry, ragged urchins and fed them the entire presidential dinner one year.
Early White House Christmases did not include a decorated Yule tree. It didn’t make an appearance, in fact, until the Christmas of 1889 during Benjamin Harrison’s first year in office. He and his family decorated it with strings of popcorn and cranberries.
Theodore Roosevelt, a devout conservationist, refused to erect a tree in the White House his first year in office. He relented the second year after his sons smuggled one in and decorated it behind locked doors.
President Andrew Jackson had the public rooms on the first floor decorated with evergreen boughs, wreaths, flowers and a cluster of mistletoe hanging from the chandelier. An orphan himself, Jackson invited all the orphan Children in Washington for dinner and played Santa, to boot. The event concluded with a fake snowball fight using starched cotton balls for ammunition.
James and Dolly Madison had Christmas dinner served on a huge mirror that created a startling effect that quickly became the talk of Washington for days. He only celebrated Christmas in the White House one of his four years in office because the British burned it down during the War of 1812.
During the Christmas season of 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife re-enacted their wedding to celebrate their 25th anniversary. The pastor who performed the initial vows repeated the act and many of the original wedding guests were on hand, as well.
Calvin Coolidge started the custom of having a large, lighted tree on the White House lawn in 1924. President Dwight Eisenhower took it a step further in the 1950s, erecting a 70-foot-tall spruce tree on the field between the White House and the Washington Monument, a custom that still garners nationwide media coverage.