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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

A Coolidge Christmas

The 1923 National Christmas Tree Lighting and the Public Celebration

The National Christmas Tree being installed on the Ellipse of the White House in December 1923. The tree was a gift from Middlebury College, located in President Coolidge’s home state of Vermont.

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In 1923 holiday anticipation grew among Washington residents, especially among the First Family. President Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge awaited the arrival of their sons Calvin, Jr. and John, who were to be home for the holidays returning from school in Pennsylvania on December 18. Mrs. Coolidge had completed her shopping and the Washington Post reported, “just what she bought for John and Calvin, Jr. is being kept as much a secret as though the boys were of the Santa Claus age.”1

The spirit of the holidays was evident at the White House with holly and mistletoe decorations on the first and second floors and the White House offices brightened with holly wreaths with red ribbons.2 On December 22, President Coolidge sent an intercontinental Christmas greeting to Captain Donald B. MacMillan and a six-man crew of arctic explorers who may have been the closest people to North Pole that holiday season. Amateur radio operators from the American Radio Relay League carried the message via shortwave ham radios.3

First Lady Grace Coolidge helps distribute Christmas food baskets at the Salvation Army to local Washingtonians. Throughout her time as first lady, Mrs. Coolidge volunteered during the busy holiday seasons to help those in need.

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On Christmas Eve, Mrs. Coolidge assisted the Salvation Army in distributing food baskets at their headquarters. In addition to helping the needy, Mrs. Coolidge also sent 50 bouquets of White House roses to the homes of women working in D.C. shops who helped Mrs. Coolidge with her Christmas gift shopping. 4 Government offices closed early at 1:00 p.m. to allow workers “a half-day shopping” before Christmas morning.5

President Coolidge spent Christmas Eve at meetings with callers to the White House and clearing his desk before the holiday. Before adjourning for the day he sent a Christmas message to America’s disabled veterans of World War I, telling them, “The heart of America is with those who made the great sacrifice in defense of our ideals.” 6

Crowds begin to gather Christmas Eve at the National Christmas Tree. Over 6,000 visitors came to see the lighting ceremony and the subsequent singing of carols and a performance from the U.S. Marine Band.

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At 5:00 p.m., President Coolidge pressed the button lighting the first National Christmas Tree located on the Ellipse, south of of the White House. The balsam fir from the Green Mountains of Vermont (a gift of Middlebury College) featured over 2,500 electric light bulbs. 7

The origin of the national tree lighting ceremony involved both local and national organizations. Since late November, Lucretia Walker Hardy of the D.C Community Center Department had been advocating for a “national tree” on the grounds of the White House, writing to presidential secretary C. Bascom Slemp, “It seems that the use of the White House grounds for this Christmas tree will give the sentiment and the exercises a national character.” 8 In early December, Middlebury College President Paul D. Moody, as well as C.C. Wells of the Society for Electrical Development were present for the felling of the tree destined for illumination on the Ellipse. 9

The Society for Electrical Development considered the tree lighting an opportunity to showcase outdoor electric lighting technology. Although Hardy suggested the tree be located on the White House grounds, the Ellipse was eventually chosen as an appropriate location. The multi-colored bulbs were a gift from the Electric League of Washington. 10

More than 6,000 people came to view the lighting on the Ellipse on Christmas Eve and then participate in the singing of Christmas carols on the South Grounds of the White House. In addition, the Epiphany Church choir performed along with the U.S. Marine Band from 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

After the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, the choir of the First Congregational Church performed carols outside the North Portico of the White House. A program of carols was published in local Washington newspaper so that visitors could sing along.

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At 9:00 p.m., the First Congregational Church, the D.C. church that the Coolidge family attended, hosted a caroling event outside the North Portico of the White House. The Evening Star published the program of carols beforehand so that those in attendance would have the words to the songs being sung. The song selection was arranged by Dr. Jason Noble Pierce, pastor of First Congregational Church, with assistance from Mrs. Coolidge. 11

The President began his Christmas with a half-hour walk accompanied by a Secret Service escort. The family had a quiet Christmas Day at the White House. They opened presents around a small tree in the Blue Room, set up and decorated the afternoon before, and later attended Christmas services at First Congregational Church with former president and current Chief Justice William Howard Taft. 12

For Christmas dinner, the family enjoyed a turkey “roasted in true old New England style.”13 That night, the Coolidges visited disabled veterans at Walter Reed Hospital for nearly three hours. Along with exchanging holiday greetings, the Coolidge family watched the historical motion picture “Abraham Lincoln” with the veterans. Originally intended to be shown at the White House, President Coolidge decided to incorporate the film into his visit to the hospital. 14

On December 24, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge participated in the first National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on the Ellipse. Since 1923, the president’s participation in this public tree lighting has become an annual tradition.

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President Coolidge and his family helped make Christmas a truly public White House tradition. Not only did the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in time become an annual event, but the advance of mass communications in the early twentieth century largely through the radio, illustrated magazines, and newsreel coverage, ensured that the First Family’s celebration of Christmas became a vital part of our national yuletide festivities.