The White House observance of Christmas before the twentieth century was not an official event. First families decorated the house modestly with greens and privately celebrated the Yuletide with family and friends.
The first White House Christmas tree, decorated with candles and toys, was placed in the second floor oval room, then used as a library and family parlor, in 1889 for President Benjamin Harrison and his family.
In 1894, three years after electricity was introduced in the White House, the first electric lights on a family tree delighted the young daughters of President Grover Cleveland. In 1912, President William H. Taft’s children helped decorate the first tree on the State Floor in the Blue Room.
The White House at Christmas traditionally has been a magical place for children.
From the earliest times memorable parties have been held for the president’s children or grandchildren. One of the most elaborate was President Andrew Jackson’s “frolic” for the children of his household in 1834. This party included games, dancing, a grand dinner, and ended with an indoor “snowball fight” with specially made cotton balls.
President Theodore and First Lady Alice Roosevelt hosted a “carnival” during the 1903 Christmas season for 500 children including dinner, dancing, musical entertainment, souvenirs, and a special treat in the form of ice cream formed in the shape of Santa and other Christmas novelties.
One popular myth suggests that Theodore Roosevelt “banned” Christmas trees at the White House, but there is little evidence to support this beyond the Roosevelts not putting up a tree.
The Roosevelts traditionally celebrated the holiday with gifts, church service, and a family meal, but they did not celebrate with a tree. 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, starting a new family tradition.
The president was amused and allowed it to continue while the family lived at the White House. Historians, commentators, and writers later reasoned that Roosevelt didn’t have a large tree because of his beliefs in conservationism, when in fact it was because the family did not traditionally celebrate Christmas with a tree. The custom of a “Christmas tree” in every house is a relatively modern one.
President Calvin Coolidge was the first chief executive to preside over a public celebration of the Christmas holidays with the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in 1923.
Today, the Christmas Pageant of Peace, a major event held annually on the Ellipse since 1954, includes the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. This celebration respects the holiday worship of all faiths and features the appearance of the first family to light the tree and host live musical and dance performances.
Although previous presidential administrations displayed Christmas trees indoors throughout the State Floor, it was First Lady Mamie Eisenhower who consistently 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 in the Blue Room in 1961. That year, the tree was decorated with ornamental toys, birds, angels and characters from the “Nutcracker Suite” ballet.
The tradition of installing the official tree in the Blue Room was interrupted twice. In 1962, the tree was displayed in the Entrance Hall because of renovation work. In 1969, First Lady Patricia Nixon chose the Entrance Hall for the American Flowers Tree, which was decorated with velvet and satin balls made by disabled workers in Florida and featuring each state’s official flower.
Over her eight White House holiday seasons, First Lady Hillary Clinton showcased the talents of America’s artistic communities.
First Lady Laura Bush varied the decorations, including the themes of “All Creatures Grand and Small in 2002” highlighting her love of animals and the importance of pets to White House history and a patriotic “A Red, White and Blue Christmas” in 2008.
The theme had been inspired by letters from Americans that began arriving after September 11th suggesting the White House have a red, white and blue Christmas. First Lady Michelle Obama announced the 2010 White House Christmas theme of “Simple Gifts.” She explained, “The greatest blessings of all are the ones that don’t cost a thing: the time that we spend with our loved ones, the freedoms we enjoy as Americans and the joy we feel from reaching out to those in need.”