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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

A Very Truman Christmas

  • Matthew Costello Chief Education Officer, The Marlyne Sexton Chair in White House History, Director of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History

President Harry Truman delivering presents to nearby family members in Independence, Missouri, December 1945.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum

The White House has many holiday traditions, some of which are historic and others more recent. New arrivals to the Executive Mansion often bring unique familial rituals that they celebrate alongside time-tested White House and presidential customs. During the holiday season, the president and first lady participate in public traditions such as receiving a tree for the Blue Room, lighting the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse, and offering their blessings in an address to the nation. The White House, however, is also a private home and has been used by many presidents to celebrate Christmas with family, friends, and invited guests based on their own preferences and traditions.

During his time in office, President Harry Truman spent most of his Christmases away from Washington, D.C. In fact, the Truman family only celebrated Christmas at the White House twice: 1947 and 1952, respectively. These were the bookend years of the most ambitious White House renovation in history (1948-1952), which relocated the Trumans to Blair House, The President’s Guest House, for about three-and-a-half years’ time. Instead of spending the holiday at Blair House during those years, the first family celebrated the occasion at the Truman home in Independence, Missouri. Additionally, First Lady Elizabeth "Bess" Truman and daughter Margaret, along with Mrs. Truman’s mother Margaret Wallace, often traveled ahead of the president. In the days leading up to Christmas, President Truman stayed behind in Washington for one of his favorite holiday traditions: the White House staff Christmas party.1The Roosevelts previously celebrated the custom by shaking the hands of all attendees and distributing gifts to the children of White House workers. President Truman continued this tradition by hosting the shindig every year. While the White House was under construction, the president hosted White House staff in the executive offices of the West Wing. In 1949, he even returned from his vacation in Key West, Florida, to attend the Christmas party before leaving aboard the president’s plane, The Independence, named after his beloved hometown.2

This December 1945 photograph shows the Truman home in Independence, Missouri. The family decorated their Christmas tree with ornaments and brightly colored lights, placing it in the large bay facing the street.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum

Alonzo Fields, an African-American man who began working at the White House as a butler during the Herbert Hoover administration and rose to the position of maître d’hotel, recalled one particularly meaningful Truman holiday story in his memoir My 21 Years at the White House. About a week before Christmas in 1945, the president asked Fields to find a black family that needed “a real happy Christmas dinner.” Truman also asked the agent in charge of his security detail to identify an impoverished white family in the city that needed a holiday meal as well. The president then handed Fields some money from his wallet and said, “This is to buy each child in the family a present. If this isn’t enough, let me know.”3 The White House maître d’hotel set off for the Southeast Settlement House, and its director located a family for him. The father had been recently killed, and the widowed mother was struggling to raise nine children, the eldest only 13 years old. Fields knew this family truly needed the holiday meal when he realized that they did not have a cooking stove in their cramped tenement home. He returned to the White House and told President Truman about his visit, suggesting that the meals be prepared and cooked in the White House kitchen instead. The president agreed, and this became a Thanksgiving and Christmas tradition that President Truman oversaw throughout his presidency. He also insisted that Fields and the Secret Service agents never tell anyone about these acts of charity. Fields himself admitted in his memoir that “the deliveries were always made in private cars and this is the first time I have told this story.”4

This photograph was taken on December 25, 1947. It shows members of the Truman and Wallace families enjoying Christmas dinner in the Family Dining Room on the State Floor. President Truman sits to the right, next to daughter Margaret and across from First Lady Bess Truman. White House maître d'hôtel Alonzo Fields (standing second from right) looks on.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum

Another annual tradition that Truman carried on was the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony. While lighting the tree with electricity was suspended during World War II, President Truman returned the bright lights to the tree on Christmas Eve 1945. “This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years,” he remarked solemnly. “With our enemies vanquished we must gird ourselves for the work that lies ahead. Peace has its victories no less hard won than success at arms…With that message I wish my countrymen a Merry Christmas and joyous days in the New Year.”5 The following year, daughter Margaret joined him for the ceremony before they left for Independence on Christmas morning.6

President Harry Truman speaks at the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony on December 24, 1945.

Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum

In 1947, the Truman family celebrated at the White House, with the president and Margaret lighting the tree on the South Grounds on Christmas Eve before heading back to the Executive Mansion to celebrate with members of the Truman and Wallace families. On Christmas morning, President Truman visited with patients at the Naval Medical Center and Walter Reed Hospital. Waiting for him back at the White House was a very special gift from Mrs. Marsden of Galena, Illinois, a former nurse for the president’s recently deceased mother Martha: a six-week old Cocker Spaniel named Feller. The president asked Brigadier General Wallace H. Graham, his presidential physician, to house Feller so the dog had some time to outgrow his puppy habits before coming to live in the White House. However, Graham’s young children, Wallace Jr. and Heather, fell in love with Feller so the president let them keep the little dog.7

This photograph shows Feller, a dog that was gifted to President Truman on December 25, 1947. The dog was sent to the home of Dr. Wallace Graham, the president's physician, for house training but stayed with the Graham family.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum

With the start of the renovation in 1948, the White House Grounds became a construction site, littered with work equipment, trucks, sheds, building materials and debris. For the next several years, the Truman family spent their Christmases at the Truman home in Independence. However, the president continued to host the annual White House staff party in Washington and participate in the tree lighting—but from afar. The president spoke by radio from his living room or recorded his Christmas addresses before he left Washington; but with the push of a telegraphic buzzer in Missouri, President Truman signaled the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in the nation’s capital. Aside from his holiday duties, the president thoroughly enjoyed walking about Independence, often stopping to speak with people along the way, though he was always encircled by Secret Service agents, aides, and members of the press. The family also attended Christmas service at Trinity Episcopal Church, where Harry and Bess were married back in 1919 and where Margaret performed with the choir. The president kept no appointments on Christmas Day and celebrated with his family privately. They enjoyed a traditional holiday meal of turkey and trimmings, and the president played the piano so the family could sing Christmas carols. Local carolers, both adults and children, also stopped by to serenade the president and his family.

This photograph shows a dump truck and a bulldozer removing the interior of the White House during the Truman renovation (1948-1952).

Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum

The Trumans moved back into the White House on March 27, 1952. Shortly thereafter, President Truman announced that he would not seek re-election that year, making Christmas 1952 his last in Washington. The president presided over the tree lighting ceremony on Christmas Eve, and the White House was festively decorated with Christmas trees, lights, and wreaths. On Christmas Day, the family enjoyed a quiet meal in the State Dining Room in the early afternoon.8 According to Alonzo Fields, Mrs. Truman scheduled the meal for 2 o’clock so White House staff could spend the rest of the holiday with their own families. Fixings for sandwiches were left out for the Trumans, who enjoyed the leftovers later that evening.9

President Harry Truman reads his Christmas address for the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony on December 24, 1951. The president rests his hand on the telegraphic buzzer to signal the lighting.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum

While the renovation of the White House prevented the Truman family from celebrating Christmas there for four holidays, President Truman continued a number of traditions both in-person and from afar. Additionally, the Truman family thoroughly enjoyed the familiarity of Independence, where they could enjoy each other’s company in privacy, listen to carolers outside, and join their neighbors to celebrate the seasonal festivities.

Members of the Truman and Wallace families enjoying their family meal in the renovated State Dining Room on December 25, 1952. This was the last Christmas in the White House for the Trumans.

Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum