The holiday has been celebrated at the president's home for centuries

By Virginia Chamlee
December 22, 2020 02:13 PM
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President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in front of the Blue Room Christmas tree
From left: President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in front of the Blue Room Christmas tree in 1961
| Credit: Robert Knudsen, White House/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The White House at Christmas is something to behold, with garland, trees, lights and ornate gingerbread houses taking over much of the property come December.

The holiday has been celebrated at the president's home for centuries. But it wasn't always quite such a spectacle and, in fact, first families have decked the halls in a variety of different ways.

"The first White House Christmas party occurred less than two months after the first occupants moved in," Stewart D. McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, explains.

That was in November 1800, when John Adams and his wife, Abigail, became the first president and first lady to move in to the White House. The next month, they hosted a Christmas gathering at their new home.

In 1894, then-President Grover Cleveland displayed the first electric-lit tree in the White House, placing it in the oval room in the residence, McLaurin says. By 1912, a Christmas tree had taken residence in the Blue Room (a public space, and one where a tree continues to be displayed during the season each year).

But it wasn't until First Lady Mamie Eisenhower festooned the halls of the "people's house" in the 1950s that the property became such a holiday highlight, McLaurin tells PEOPLE.

"She really blew out Christmas at the White House — there were garlands, wreaths, greenery. She added trees all over the state floor," he says.

Below is a look at how Christmas at the White House has evolved over time.

Yellow Oval Room Decorated for Christmas
President Grover Cleveland's electric Christmas tree, displayed in a private parlor in the upstairs Oval Room, circa 1896.
| Credit: White House Historical Association

An Indoor 'Snowball' Fight

In 1835, President Andrew Jackson hosted what was called a "Frolic" — an over-the-top party — for children in his own family and those related to White House staffers.

While public decorations and Christmas trees weren't yet in fashion, Jackson pulled out all the stops.

"The story remains that it was one of the most elaborate celebrations of Christmas ever held at the White House," McLaurin says. "There was dancing and dinner and even an indoor 'snowball' fight, in which children played with snowballs made out of cotton, especially for the occasion."

A Hidden Tree

At the turn of the 20th century, Christmas trees weren't quite the American tradition they've since become. Then-President Teddy Roosevelt, for instance, wasn't interested in displaying one at the White House.

"He was into conservation and somewhat of an environemtnalist," McLaurin notes. "Some said he didn’t like to have a Christmas tree because he didn’t like cutting down trees, but it was more that it just wasn't a family tradition for him."

Not everyone felt the same way.

Determined to have a tree of his own, Roosevelt's young son Archie found a small tree outside, dragging it into his room when no one was watching, decorating it with candles and hiding it in an upstairs closet.

"It was quite dangerous, considering the candles," McLaurin says.

But catastrophe was avoided and "eventually, the hidden tree was revealed to the family, and it began a new tradition of having a Christmas tree in the White House."

Today, there are Christmas trees throughout the house, the most prominent being the one on display in the Blue Room. Though the White House is delivered a new tree every year, they all have something in common: Each is the same height, at roughly 18-and-a-half feet tall.

"The chandelier is taken down and the tree fits perfectly in the space from the floor to where the chandelier would typically be connected to the ceiling," McLaurin says.

Red Room Cranberry Tree White House
The Cranberry Tree, pictured here in 2018 in the Red Room, is a tradition dating to 1975, when Betty Ford was first lady.
| Credit: Matthew D'Agostino for the White House Historical Association

The Christmas Eve Fire

President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Hoover were hosting a Christmas party for children of the president’s staff on Dec. 24, 1929, when a messenger smelled a blaze.

They alerted the president, who left the building (cigar in hand, McLaurin says) while members of the staff attempted to put out the fire.

The children who gathered for the celebration remained unaware of the incident, which was taking place in a different area of the White House.

McLaurin says that fire crews from Washington, D.C.'s Engine Company 1 quickly arrived to the scene to battle the fire, which damaged both the White House press room and much of the executive offices.

"It took several months to rebuild, but the following Christmas the Hoovers invited those children back to the White House and gave them a wrought-iron replica of the fire engine that had responded that night," McLaurin says.

The Kennedys Attend Staff Christmas Reception
From left: President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy attend a staff Christmas reception in 1962.
| Credit: White House Historical Association

Christmas Gets the Kennedy Treatment

Leave it to Jacqueline Kennedy to turn Christmas at the White House into a stylish affair. In 1961, the first lady determined it should be decorated with a theme: the Nutcracker suite. Every first lady since has followed in her footsteps, selecting a theme for the decorations of each year.

"Before the Kennedys, a new president and first lady would come into the White House and they could get rid of anything they wanted to," McLaurin says. "And Congress didn’t provide a lot of money for decorating, so new presidents would often fund [the purchase of] new things by selling old things."

When husband John F. Kennedy was sworn in as president, Mrs. Kennedy set about storing pieces of historical importance, including holiday decorations, McLaurin says. "It was at that time that the White House began to be treated like a museum, where things are part of a collection and they stay as a collection."

McLaurin says that, since 1961, White House decor has been kept in a large storage facility in the suburbs of D.C. "A whole huge section of that warehouse is devoted to Christmas," he says. "There are toy soldiers and decorations and wreaths — all kinds of things from over the years."

Each year, the first lady will sort through the decorations of years past and try to reuse or repurpose some of the items, adding to the collection to fit that year's theme.

Once she and her team settle on the theme and decor, it's up to a team of volunteers to bring the vision to life.

"I don’t know how it started, but in recent presidencies about 100 volunteers convene early on the Friday after Thanksgiving to execute the plan the first lady has approved," McLaurin says.

The volunteers decorate all day Friday and Saturday and add any final touches on Sunday, before the first lady gets her first view of the decorations.

In 1981, the White House Historical Association worked with First Lady Nancy Reagan to create a new tradition of its own: an annual Christmas ornament that pays homage to presidents of years past. (The 2020 ornament features President Kennedy.)

Pat Nixon with 1972 Gingerbread House
First Lady Pat Nixon poses for pictures on Dec. 11, 1972, next to the first annual gingerbread house on display in the State Dining Room.
| Credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The Gingerbread House

The gingerbread depiction of the White House dates back to 1969, during the Nixon administration, when then-pastry chef Hanz Raffert created an A-frame style sugary confection.

That tradition continued until pastry chef Roland Mesnier tweaked the idea, creating a gingerbread replica of the actual White House, rather than an A-frame.

Each administration has put its own spin on the creation, McLaurin says. "In the Clinton years, they added White House pets. So you could actually see Socks, the cat, as part of the gingerbread house," he says. "This year, they’ve added historic elements from around the country. Each first lady or each pastry chef tries to come up with a whimsical, fun element."

White House gingerbread house
The White House gingerbread house in the State Dining Room in 2019 during a press preview of the year's holiday decor
| Credit: Matthew D'Agostino for the White House Historical Association

An Early Christmas

Customarily, first families won't spend Christmas Day at the White House. Instead, they'll leave D.C. to be with family in their own private places of refuge: Florida's Mar-a-Lago Club for the Trumps, for example; or Kennebunkport, Maine, for the Bush family.

The Bushes, in particular, chose to celebrate D.C. festivities early, to allow staff to spend the days leading up to Christmas with their own families.

Laura and George Bush
From left: First Lady Laura Bush and President George W. Bush stand in front of the official White House Christmas tree during the holiday season in the Blue Room on Dec. 5, 2004.
| Credit: Eric Draper/White House via Getty

"They were particularly known for being thoughtful to White House staff," McLaurin says. "So they would not have White House parties running right up to Christmas. Instead, they would end them early, so staff could have quality time with their families."

First Lady Laura Bush also presided over the White House Christmas decor in the wake of a tragic event in American history: the terrorist attack of Sep. 11, 2001. While public tours were closed for a time that year, she saved the decorations, later revealing them to the public at her husband's presidential library in Texas.