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The White House Christmas Trees

The Christmas Tree has been a tradition in the White House since 1835 when Andrew Jackson’s French chef make him a sugar-frosted pine tree, surrounded with toy animals made out of flavored ices. Jackson, it is reported, loved Christmas and made a great feast of it.

President Franklin Pierce, our 14th President erected a Christmas tree to the White House in 1856 for a group of Washington Sunday School children, while caroler's sang "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." In 1895, President Grover Cleveland became the first President to use electric lights on a White Christmas Tree.

Victorian-Era Christmas Tree SceneThere was almost a break in the tradition during the tenure of President Theodore Roosevelt. The story is that in 1902 the president, an ardent conservationist, forbad his children to have a Christmas tree on the grounds that it would undermine his conservation program [1] ; often, the children in question are identified as Archie and Quentin. [2] Roosevelt is reported to have said "It's not good to cut down trees for mere decoration. We must set a good example for the people of America." However when the matter was broached with Gifford Pinchot, a cabinet member and founder of the Yale School of Forestry, the President relented. Pinchot assured the President that thinning the forest by cutting down Christmas trees actually helped the forest thrive. It is reported that after this episode, the Roosevelts had a small tree each year.

Roosevelt, in a letter to Master James A. Garfield, dated December 26, 1902, wrote:

      Yesterday morning at a quarter of seven all the children were up and dressed and began to hammer at the door of their mother's and my room, in which their six stockings, all bulging out with queer angles and rotundities, were hanging from the fireplace. So their mother and I got up, shut the window, lit the fire, taking down the stockings, of course, put on our wrappers and prepared to admit the children. But first there was a surprise for me, also for their good mother, for Archie had a little Christmas tree of his own which he had rigged up with the help of one of the carpenters in a big closet; and we all had to look at the tree and each of us got a present off of it. [Emphasis added.] There was also one present each for Jack the dog, Tom Quartz the kitten, and Algonquin the pony, whom Archie would no more think of neglecting than I would neglect his brothers and sisters. Then all the children came into our bed and there they opened their stockings. Afterwards we got dressed and took breakfast, and then all went into the library, where each child had a table set for his bigger presents. Quentin had a perfectly delightful electric railroad, which had been rigged up for him by one of his friends, the White House electrician, who has been very good to all the children. [3]

In a letter to his sister, Mrs. Douglas Robinson, Dec. 26, 1903, President Roosevelt wrote:

      We had a delightful Christmas yesterday—just such a Christmas thirty or forty years ago we used to have under Father's and Mother's supervision in 20th street and 57th street.

      At seven all the children came in to open the big, bulgy stockings in our bed; Kermit's terrier, Allan, a most friendly little dog, adding to the children's delight by occupying the middle of the bed. From Alice to Quentin, each child was absorbed in his or her stocking, and Edith certainly managed to get the most wonderful stocking toys. Bob was in looking on, and Aunt Emily, of course.

      Then, after breakfast, we all formed up and went into the library, where bigger toys were on separate tables for the children. I wonder whether there ever can come in life a thrill of greater exaltation and rapture than that which comes to one between the ages of say six and fourteen, when the library door is thrown open and you walk in to see all the gifts, like a materialized fairy land, arrayed on your special table? [4]

Roosevelt wasn’t against Christmas, however, in two works published in 1913, he wrote about Christmas customs observed by the Roosevelt family.

      In ["The Yale Book of American Verse’s"] the anthology of hymns, for instance, besides all the great hymns, from Bernard of Morlais to Cowper and Wesley and Bishop Heber, I would like to put in some hymns as to which I know nothing except that I like them. Every Christmas Eve in our own church at Oyster Bay, for instance, the children sing a hymn beginning "Its Christmas Eve on the River, its Christmas Eve on the Bay." Of course the hymn has come to us from somewhere else, but I do not know from where; and the average native of our village firmly believes that it is indigenous to our own soil—which it can not be, unless it deals in hyperbole, for the nearest approach to a river in our neighborhood is the village pond. [5]

In his Autobiography, he elaborated.

      My children, when young, went to the public school near us, the little Cove School, as it is called. For nearly thirty years we have given the Christmas tree to the school. Before the gifts are distributed I am expected to make an address, which is always mercifully short, my own children having impressed upon me with frank sincerity the attitude of other children to addresses of this kind on such occasions. There are of course performances by the children themselves, while all of us parents look admiringly on, each sympathizing with his or her particular offspring in the somewhat wooden recital of "Darius Green and his Flying Machine" or "The Mountain and the Squirrel had a Quarrel." But the tree and the gifts make up for all shortcomings.

      We had a sleigh for winter; but if, when there was much snow, the whole family desired to go somewhere, we would put the body of the farm wagon on runners and all bundle in together. We always liked snow at Christmas time, and the sleigh-ride down to the church on Christmas eve. One of the hymns always sung at this Christmas eve festival begins, "It's Christmas eve on the river, it's Christmas eve on the bay." All good natives of the village firmly believe that this hymn was written here, and with direct reference to Oyster Bay; although if such were the case the word "river" would have to be taken in a hyperbolic sense, as the nearest approach to a river is the village pond. I used to share this belief myself, until my faith was shaken by a Denver lady who wrote that she had sung that hymn when a child in Michigan, and that at the present time her little Denver babies also loved it, although in their case the river was not represented by even a village pond. [6]

The song Roosevelt was referring to is called It Is Christmas Day.

In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge established the National Community Christmas Tree and The Tree Lighting Ceremony Tradition on the White House lawn when he lit the first presidential tree illuminated by electric lights on the White House lawn. Since then, each year a tree is chosen from a different State, so each State has their turn for the honor of providing the National Tree. Part of the decorations is 50 special ornaments, one for each State. When the President turns on the lights it signals to everyone the Christmas Season has started.

The White House usually has two Christmas Trees Inside, one on the first floor and one upstairs in the First Family's living quarters. In some years, however, that number can grow considerably. Since 1966, members of the National Christmas Tree Association have presented a fresh Christmas Tree to the President and first family. This Tree is displayed each year in the Blue Room of the White House.

Footnotes

1. During Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House from 1901 to 1909, he designated 150 National Forests, the first 51 Federal Bird Reservations, 5 National Parks, the first 18 National Monuments, the first 4 National Game Preserves, and the first 21 Reclamation Projects. Altogether, in the seven-and-one-half years he was in office, he provided federal protection for almost 230 million acres, a land area equivalent to that of all the East coast states from Maine to Florida. Source: "Theodore Roosevelt: A Brief Biography by Tweed Roosevelt" http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/biotr.htm Return

2. Irena Chalmers, The Great American Christmas Almanac (New York: Viking, 1988). Quentin, Roosevelt's youngest son, was killed in July 1918 while flying on a mission behind enemy lines - only four months before the war ended. Two other sons, Archie and Ted, were wounded in the war. The death of Quentin was a severe blow for Roosevelt. Source: "Theodore Roosevelt: Family Man," http://www.trthegreatnewyorker.com/Familyman/default.htm Return

3. This episode became the basis of a children’s novel, A Christmas Tree in the White House, by Gary Hines, Alexandra Wallner (Illustrator) (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998). Return

4. From Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children. 1919. Return

5. Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). History as Literature, Chapter VI, Productive Scholarship, 1913. Return

6. Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), An Autobiography, Chapter IX, Outdoors and Indoors, 1913. Return

Sources:

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