The Roosevelts celebrated Christmas with a flurry of public and private activities. The non-stop action began the week before Christmas as children, grandchildren and other family members began arriving at the White House. "I think this old house likes the sound of children's voices," ER wrote in one of her December columns. "It certainly is an ideal place for children of every age to play in."
The youngest children and their nannies would stay in the third floor solarium where "a little household" complete with kitchen handled their needs. The solarium also housed ER's "Christmas Closet," where the First Lady kept her holiday purchases and where she spent "many hours wrapping packages and marking them in preparation for Christmas Day." Five children, their spouses and thirteen grandchildren by the Christmas of 1944, as well as innumerable other family and friends made shopping a monumental task even for ER, who loved Christmas and gift giving. To ensure she did not give anyone the same gift twice, she kept a notebook with the names of family and friends and a list of what she had previously given them.
The Roosevelts usually began their holiday season on December 23, when they celebrated their oldest son James's birthday. After a family dinner with toasts, the Roosevelts would listen to carolers who serenaded the family under the White House portico. In 1940 the singers included an African American community chorus from the Works Progress Administration whose music ER said sent "us away more appreciative than ever . . ." of their talent and ability. Depending on their schedules, the Roosevelts would "dress" (decorate) the Christmas tree in the private quarters on December 23 or 24, and FDR would read the family an abbreviated version of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol.
Christmas Eve marked the beginning of what ER called "official Christmas"—a time when she and FDR performed mostly public duties. ER began her day with a series of holiday parties for disadvantaged children hosted by Washington area charities such as the Central Union Mission, the Salvation Army and the Kiwanis Club of Arlington, Virginia. At these events ER would convey "the President's good wishes," shake hands with guests and pose for photographs. The patient attitude of the children who attended these parties saddened ER. "I am impressed more each year with the complete tractableness of the children of the poor," she wrote after attending one Central Union Mission party. "They are told to stand thus and so, they are given a bag of toys so a photograph may be taken and then it is taken away again. They look bewildered, but they never protest."
Her tour completed, ER returned to the White House where she joined FDR in the Oval Office. There they wished the executive office staff, the president's Secret Service detail and White House police officers a merry Christmas and handed out small gifts. Then the Roosevelts went to the East Room where they hosted a party for the mansion staff and their children—the one occasion in the year "when we have an opportunity to see the [staff's] children," ER wrote.
After the mansion staff party, the Roosevelts adjourned to Lafayette Square where FDR would light the community Christmas tree and speak to the nation via radio. Beginning in 1936, the Roosevelts' official Christmas duties concluded with ER's visits to the residents in one or more of the city's many alley slums. They or a local sponsoring organization such as the Council of Federated Churchwomen or the Alley Dwelling Authority would provide a lighted Christmas tree for an alley, and the residents would gather there for carol singing and gift giving. ER would speak and help distribute the gifts.
When the alley celebrations ended, ER returned to the White House where the rest of the family awaited her. They would then hang their stockings on the mantelpiece in FDR's bedroom. Early the next morning they would gather there to see what "Santa" had brought, a process that ER noted always took "a long time" because of the number of children and dogs involved. The family then had breakfast and went to church. After lunch, long distance calls to any absent family members and naps for the youngest children, the Roosevelts opened the rest of their presents around the family tree. The day ended with a gala dinner for family and close friends. (Twice during the years the Roosevelts spent in the White House, ER missed the Christmas Day celebrations. In 1936 and again in 1937 she opted to spend Christmas with an ailing child. In 1936 she spent Christmas in Boston with FDR, Jr. who was recovering from a sinus operation. The next year, 1937, she traveled to Seattle to be with the Roosevelts' daughter, Anna, who had suffered a hemorrhage).
Between Christmas and New Year's Eve, the Roosevelts hosted private social events such as parties for their grandchildren or dances for their children. In 1938 the president and first lady gave a debutante dance in the White House for ER's niece, also named Eleanor Roosevelt, preceded by dinner for "so many cousins from different sides of the family" that ER and her brother, Hall, spent the meal trying to identify the younger generation "by their resemblance to their parents." Sometimes the Roosevelt children hosted the parties as Franklin Jr. and his first wife Ethel did in 1937 and 1939. Occasionally the Roosevelts would attend affairs outside the White House during the holiday season. In 1939 for example, ER attended the fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration of former Secretary of Commerce Daniel Roper and his wife, Lou and in 1942, the family attended the December 26 wedding of their cousin Belle Roosevelt in nearby Fairfax, Va.
The advent of World War II in 1941 both expanded and contracted the Roosevelts' Christmas celebration. For example, better economic conditions meant ER attended fewer holiday parties for disadvantaged children. Instead she used the time to visit wounded servicemen at Walter Reed Army hospital. Wartime conservation measures made it impossible for FDR to light the community Christmas tree (now set up on the South Lawn of the White House), but the audience for the ceremony and his message grew to include members of the armed services overseas who heard the ceremony via shortwave radio. The Roosevelts also scaled back their private entertaining, and the number of family members who gathered at the White House (or at Hyde Park where the Roosevelts spent Christmases of 1943 and 1944) shrank as the their four sons and one son-in-law joined the military. However, FDR and ER continued their annual custom of meeting with the president's executive office staff on Christmas Eve, and the party for the mansion staff, which now included all the military guards at the White House, went on as before although tinsel for the White House Christmas tree became increasingly difficult to obtain due to wartime rationing. In 1944 ER admitted to feeling "rather discouraged about how the tree would look" but she took heart when a girl scout troop gave her two boxes of ornaments made with peanuts, straws, cotton paper doilies and red ribbon four days before Christmas. Once on the tree, she found the ornaments looked "very charming and as Christmas-y as anything I have ever seen."
The only part of the Roosevelts' holiday celebration that seldom varied was New Year's Eve. FDR and ER usually marked the occasion with a White House dinner for family and friends and perhaps a movie or live entertainment in the early evening. In 1939, however, their routine was disrupted when two Washington teenagers, a boy and a girl, entered the mansion undetected in a quest to obtain FDR's autograph. (The White House staff admitted the couple thinking they were two other young people who were on the guest list but who had not yet arrived.) The boy, Joseph Measell, walked all the way up to the third floor where the Roosevelts and their guests were watching a movie before being accosted by the Roosevelts' youngest son, John. Measell explained his mission, and left the White House with autographs from FDR, ER and John.
That incident aside, the Roosevelts and their guests usually concluded their New Year's Eve celebration, by gathering in the president's White House study where they waited, eggnog cups in hand, for "the radio to announce the end of the new year and the beginning of the new one." As midnight struck, FDR would offer his traditional toast: "To the United States of America."
Written by: Mary Jo Binker, The Eleanor Roosevelt Project