Main Content

Rubenstein Center Scholarship

An Eisenhower 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

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.

In this photograph, National Park Service photographer Abbie Rowe captures President Dwight Eisenhower at the National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony taken December, 24, 1953. The National Tree lighting ceremony started in 1923 during the Coolidge administration and has become a treasured tradition in Washington, D.C. Rowe was a prolific photographer, providing extensive coverage of the presidency from the Franklin D. Roosevelt through the Lyndon B. Johnson administrations.

National Archives and Records Administration

During his time in office, President Dwight Eisenhower and his wife First Lady Mamie Eisenhower spent most of their Christmases at the White House. The exceptions to this were 1953 and 1954, when the Eisenhowers spent Christmas Day at their cabin on the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Nevertheless, they still hosted a traditional Christmas party for the White House staff in the East Room and participated in the annual National Christmas Tree Lighting.1 The 1953 ceremony was particularly meaningful, as American involvement in the Korean War had ceased earlier that summer. In his address, President Eisenhower remarked that “this Christmas is truly a season of good will—and our first peaceful one since 1949.” He asked citizens to pray for the country as “religious faith is the foundation of free government, so is prayer an indispensable part of that faith.”2 The tree, a thirty-five-foot living spruce, was decorated with about 1,700 ornaments and just over 1,000 blue and red lights.3 President Eisenhower was present for the lighting ceremony every year except for 1955 when he and Mrs. Eisenhower lit the tree by remote control from his farm at Gettysburg.4

In this photograph, taken by Abbie Rowe of the National Park Service on December 25, 1955, the Eisenhower family sits in the East Room, in front of the White House Christmas Tree. From left to right are: David Eisenhower, Maj. John S. D. Eisenhower, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, Susan Eisenhower (in front), President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Barbara Thompson Eisenhower, and Barbara Anne Eisenhower.

National Archives and Records Administration

In 1954, the Eisenhowers participated in a new addition to the annual Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony: the Pageant of Peace. The Washington Board of Trade and the Washington Citizen’s Committee envisioned a larger holiday celebration, calling it the “Christmas Pageant of Peace.” It included a Pathway of Peace, which featured smaller trees that represented all states, territories, and the District of Columbia. It was later expanded to include stages for entertainment, a life-sized Nativity Scene with real animals, exhibits, and activities for children.5 The Pageant extended the festivities surrounding the annual tree lighting from a single day to several weeks.6

As was customary, the Eisenhowers gave out gifts every year to members of the White House staff. In 1954, they received a lithograph of an oil painting by President Eisenhower, who copied the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. The prints were signed "Dwight Eisenhower, Christmas, 1954.”7 In 1956, the president and first lady gave out photographs of themselves, with engraved signatures and a holiday greeting.8 They also sent out Christmas cards by the thousands—according to one newspaper account, the Eisenhowers’ list featured somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 names in 1954 alone!9

This is a photograph of the Eisenhower's 1957 Christmas card, taken by National Park Service Photographer Abbie Rowe, in 1957. The message on the card reads "Seasons Greetings 1957, The President and Mrs. Eisenhower extend their best wishes for Christmas and the New Year." Rowe was a prolific photographer, providing extensive coverage of the presidency from the Franklin D. Roosevelt through the Lyndon B. Johnson administrations.

National Archives and Records Administration

They also received gifts from well-wishers and civic groups. In 1957, a 42-pound turkey was sent to the White House, along with two gallons of oysters by a delegation from St. Mary's County, Maryland. Two years later, the St. Mary’s County Maryland Development Committee sent the Eisenhowers a 40-pound turkey and a gallon of oysters.10 During his last Christmas in office, the president received a putter from Governor Mark Hatfield—a gift that accompanied the new tree for the Ellipse sent by residents of Lane County, Oregon. President Eisenhower doubted that it would help his short game, but promised to try it as soon as the snow on the South Lawn putting green was gone.11

This photograph of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie Doud Eisenhower was taken at the White House on Christmas Day in 1956. The President and Mrs. Eisenhower are seen holding their youngest grandchild, Mary Jean Eisenhower.

National Park Service, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas

Beginning in 1955, the Eisenhowers spent every Christmas at the White House.12 While she was not the “first” first lady to decorate the Executive Mansion for the holiday, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower took it to a whole new level, adding Christmas trees, poinsettias, wreaths, and holly throughout the home. According to one 1957 newspaper account, there were at least 16 Christmas trees in the White House.13In 1959, there were 26 Christmas trees, ranging from little table models to a majestic 18-foot Canadian Pine in the East Room. There was also a crèche displayed near the tree, and Santa Claus figurines were placed beside the busts of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln.14 The first lady loved to decorate for holidays, especially when the Eisenhower grandchildren were present to enjoy the seasonal décor. This family tradition continued beyond the presidency as Mrs. Eisenhower brought her flair for the holidays to the farm at Gettysburg. Today, the Eisenhower National Historic Site displays some of the family’s original Christmas decorations for visitors to see during the month of December.15

This black and white photograph by Abbie Rowe shows the extended Eisenhower family at Christmas in the White House in 1957. The adults, from left to right, are: First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, daughter-in-law Barbara Thompson Eisenhower, son Maj. John S. D. Eisenhower, and President Eisenhower. The children are all of the Eisenhower grandchildren: David, Mary Jean, Barbara Anne, and Susan.

National Archives and Records Administration

On Christmas Day, the Eisenhowers celebrated like most Americans did at that time—gifts in the morning, games and music throughout the day, and a family meal in the evening. They attended worship services—either on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day—at National Presbyterian Church. The president typically didn’t work on the holiday, relishing personal time with his son John and daughter-in-law Barbara, as well as the grandchildren—Dwight (David), Barbara Anne, Susan, and Mary Jean. Some of the president’s favorite Christmas songs were Silent Night, Adeste Fidelis, and The First Noel.16 However, he must have really enjoyed it when David, Barbara Anne, and Susan gave a rousing rendition of O Come, All Ye Faithful to White House reporters in 1955. The president had invited members of the press to watch as the family’s portrait was taken in the East Room, and the grandchildren performed for the gathered crowd.17 The Eisenhower family loved Christmas, and they cherished the opportunity to participate in well-established White House traditions while simultaneously maintaining their own family customs.

This photograph is of the Eisenhower family enjoying Christmas dinner in the State Dining Room of the White House in 1960. Seated at the table are President Dwight D. Eisenhower, First Lady Mamie Doud Eisenhower, their son John S. D. Eisenhower, and several grandchildren.

US Navy, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas