The White House Easter Egg Roll
The History of a Holiday Event
Since 1878, American presidents and their families have celebrated Easter Monday by hosting an ‘egg roll’ party. Held on the South Lawn, it is one of the oldest annual events in White House history. Some historians note that First Lady Dolley Madison originally suggested the idea of a public egg roll, while others tell stories of informal egg-rolling parties at the White House dating back to President Lincoln’s administration. Beginning in the 1870s, Washingtonians from all social levels celebrated Easter Monday on the west grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Children rolled brilliantly dyed hard-boiled eggs down the terraced lawn.
Soon a concern for the landscape led to a bill that banned the rolling of eggs on Capitol grounds. In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law. The new edict went unchallenged in 1877, as rain cancelled all the day’s activities, but egg rollers who came in 1878 were ejected by Capitol Hill police.
President Hayes Saves the Day
In 1878, Easter Monday celebrants who were not allowed to roll eggs on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol headed up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. The children knew about the low hills on the South Lawn, and hoped their egg rolling games would be permitted there. President Rutherford B. Hayes instructed his guards to let the youngsters through the gates. It proved to be a very popular change of venue. By Easter Monday 1880, an article in the Evening Star reported that eager egg rollers had taken “absolute possession of the grounds south of the White House.”
Easter and the Cleveland East Room
In the beginning, children came into the White House with baskets of brightly dyed hard-boiled eggs. On Easter Monday, 1885, young egg rollers marched into the East Room, hoping for a personal audience with President Grover Cleveland. When he came down from his office to greet them, he was charmed, and indoor egg roll receptions became customary. These visitors ruined the East Room carpet, which, as the Washington Post reported, was “ground full of freshly smashed hard-boiled egg and broken egg shells.” Still, when Cleveland returned in 1893 for a second, non-consecutive term, he continued to grant the egg rollers carte blanche access to the house and grounds.
Harrison: The President’s Own Comes Marching In
Eleven years after the Easter Monday egg rolling festivities came to the White House, President Benjamin Harrison scored a hit by adding music to the affair. In 1889, he had the United States Marine Band, known as “The President’s Own,” play lively tunes while the children romped on the South Lawn. John Philip Sousa, who directed the band, took delight in treating the egg roll guests to rousing marches. Sousa honored the occasion in his 1929 composition “Easter Monday on the White House Lawn.” U.S. Marine Band concerts were always a highlight of the event, and they continue to provide egg roll celebrants with music to make this day even more special.
The Holiday Bustle and Hustle
As the Easter Monday event became more of an attraction, a rule was fixed to limit the number of people coming into the enclosed South Lawn. The rule stated that a “grown person would be admitted only when accompanied by a child” The White House Easter Egg Roll and vice versa. As a result, unescorted egg rollers and childless adults began teaming up at random so that each could gain admittance. Enterprising children even charged a fee for parading a series of unrelated “grown persons” past the security guards. The situation grew so scandalous that on Easter Monday 1939, the Evening Star reported that Secret Service men were stationed at the White House gates to “break up the kids’ rackets.”
The Role of First Families
Once the White House was opened to public egg rolling festivities in 1878, first families had to decide whether they were going to join the throng of celebrants or just organize and play host to it. Previously, the South Lawn was reserved for their own private Eastertide activities. Now the very grounds represented a famous rite of spring for the nation’s capital. President Benjamin Harrison gave his grandson limited exposure to the crowds. The Clevelands kept their daughters Ruth and Esther in the house away from the crowd. The Theodore Roosevelt clan studied the action from the South Portico. First Lady Edith Wilson invited family friends and cabinet members to join in the fun. Two Hoover grandchildren spoke from the bandstand for the “talkies” in 1931.
Egg Games Old and New
The primary Easter Monday entertainment at the White House has always involved egg rolling. Participants roll dyed, hard-boiled eggs across the grass to see whose will go the furthest before cracking. Other egg sports enjoyed in the early years were egg ball, toss and catch, egg croquet and egg picking – a contest where eggs are pecked together until they crack. After a few days, the odor of all the eggs broken in these free-form games “could be smelled three square miles away.”
In 1929, First Lady Lou Hoover hoped to end the rotten egg stench by introducing folk dancing. Her successor, Eleanor Roosevelt, thought it better to impose a sense of structure to egg-based activities. First Lady Pat Nixon’s staff arranged the first – and last – Easter egg hunt with actual eggs. Unfound eggs quickly reminded people of why Mrs. Hoover had favored folk dancing. In 1974, the Nixons hosted the first egg roll races, an event which has become an Easter Monday favorite.
Bunnies and Other Easter Animals
First pets are a popular attraction at the White House egg roll. Canine attendees of the event have included a wide variety of beloved purebreds and mutts. Animals as diverse as Benjamin Harrison’s toy pony, Grace Coolidge’s raccoon and the 1,200-pound steer brought in by the Carters for their petting zoo have appeared on the South Lawn for Easter Monday. Appropriately, pet rabbits have also shown up at the egg roll. In 1969, one of First Lady Pat Nixon’s staff put on a fleecy white costume, and the tradition of an official White House Easter Bunny was born. Now young egg rollers are just as thrilled to see this big bunny as they are the occupants of the White House.
Wartime: The Years Without an Easter Monday
The egg roll holds such an important place in White House history that no president wants to be known for canceling it. World War I and food rationing stopped the event from 1917 to 1920. In 1942, egg rollers were sent back to the Capitol grounds, the very place from which they had been ousted 64 years before. World War II then completely stopped the festivities from 1943 to 1945.
President Harry Truman did not host an egg roll. During 1946 and 1947, food conservation efforts caused him to reluctantly cancel the affair. Then from 1948 through 1952, his renovation of the White House made the South Lawn a construction zone. President Dwight D. Eisenhower revived the tradition after its twelve-year hiatus, but a string of his successors could not be at the White House on Easter Monday to greet their egg roll visitors. President Gerald Ford reinstated the presidential appearance in 1976 – the first since Eisenhower had acted as host in 1960.
Fanfare & Keepsakes
Over the years, White House egg roll events have been made memorable by new attractions. In 1993, the Clintons scaled back the fanfare so that children would remember the day for its egg rolling games. A generation earlier, First Lady Pat Nixon gave out certificates of participation as a souvenir to eggrollers. Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter distributed plastic eggs with printed notes inside from the first lady. In 1981, President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan hosted a hunt for wooden eggs that bore the signatures of famous people. Wooden eggs soon became the official White House egg roll keepsakes. The eggs are designed to reflect the special theme of each year’s event, and are inscribed with the signatures of the president and first lady. Each child under the age of twelve is given one as he or she exits the South Lawn gates.