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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Christmas with the Johnson Family

  • 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

In this photograph, taken by Frank Wolfe on December 24, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson poses with his growing family for a holiday portrait in the Yellow Oval Room. Seated from left: first daughter Luci Baines Johnson Nugent with her son Patrick Lyndon Nugent on her lap; First Lady Lady Bird Johnson; President Johnson with dog Yuki; and first daughter Lynda Bird Johnson Robb cradling infant daughter Lucinda Robb. The family's private Christmas tree is visible in the background.

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

The White House celebrates many holiday traditions, some of which are historic and others more recent. New arrivals to the Executive Mansion bring unique familial rituals that are often blended with 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 served as the setting for presidents to spend Christmas with family, friends, and invited guests based on individual preferences and traditions.

This photograph was taken during a Christmas party held for the children of diplomats on December 29, 1965. Here, army musicians from the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps perform in the East Room. Gilbert Stuart's official portrait of President George Washington is visible on the wall in the background.

White House Historical Association

Prior to and during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, the Johnson family spent many Christmas Days at their ranch in Stonewall, Texas. However, during the month of December, President Johnson and First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson continued many White House holiday traditions. President Johnson lit the National Christmas Tree every year, a custom started by President Calvin Coolidge in 1923. In fact, as vice president, he even filled in for President John F. Kennedy in 1961 as Kennedy hurriedly left Washington to be with his ailing father Joseph.1 The tree lighting ceremony was especially solemn in 1963, as the country continued to grieve after Kennedy’s assassination. President Johnson lit the National Christmas Tree on December 22, thirty days after his predecessor’s death. “Tonight we come to the end of the season of great national sorrow, and to the beginning of the season of great, eternal joy. We mourn our great President John F. Kennedy, but he would have us go on,” he said. Johnson promised a “rebirth of the finest qualities of our national life,” and called on Americans to share “with others something of themselves…and find some way with which to make this Christmas a prouder memory for what we gave instead of what we receive.”2

This photograph of the East Room was taken by Matthew D'Agostino on December 2, 2019 during a press preview of the White House holiday decor. The decorations in the East Room honored bravery, perseverance, and the American flag. Glimmering trees were topped with gilded eagles and trimmed with patriotic stars and ribbons. The trees flanked the crèche and the portraits of George and Martha Washington. The holiday theme for 2019 was The Spirit of America, which recognized the United States' rich history and traditions. Designed by First Lady Melania Trump, the White House decorations paid tribute to the individuals who have shaped the country and kept the American spirit alive, drawing inspiration from the hard working people and families Mrs. Trump met on her travels as first lady.

Matthew D'Agostino for the White House Historical Association

Inside the White House, the Johnsons hosted traditional Christmas receptions and gifted seasonal prints with their signatures to staff members. Mrs. Johnson selected holiday themes like her predecessor, Jacqueline Kennedy, and festively decorated the White House with trees, garland, wreaths, and ribbons. Mrs. Johnson also created new holiday traditions such as the annual Christmas party for the children of diplomats. These events were organized with The Hospitality and Information Service (THIS) for Diplomats, which had begun with special events at the White House with Mrs. Kennedy and evolved during the Johnson years. Children were treated to entertainment, festive foods, and allowed to explore the White House and see the decorations.3 Mrs. Johnson also began the custom of receiving the National Christmas Tree Association champion for the Blue Room in 1966, which continues today and ensures that a tree of exceptional quality is on display.4

In this photograph, taken by Joseph J. Scherschel of the National Geographic Service on December 18, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson enjoys Christmas treats with a table of children in the State Dining Room. This Children's Christmas Party was hosted by Luci Johnson, the younger of Johnson's two daughters.

White House Historical Association

Like preceding administrations, the Johnsons hosted many Christmas parties and receptions throughout the month of December. This included the annual White House staff Christmas party, where employees and their guests listened to Christmas music, danced, and enjoyed festive foods. The president and first lady, as well as their daughters, hosted different groups throughout the month so all could experience a White House Christmas. On December 18, 1965, Luci Johnson hosted a party for underprivileged schoolchildren. President Johnson joined the gathering briefly and escorted the true guest of honor—Santa Claus—into the room! The children shouted and cheered as the most famous man in the world (and President Johnson) greeted guests, shook hands, and posed for pictures.5

In this photograph, taken December 9, 1967, newlyweds Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and Capt. Charles S. Robb take their first steps together as man and wife following their wedding ceremony in the East Room of the White House. The ceremony was officiated by the Right Reverend Gerald Nicholas McAllister. This was the 15th wedding held at the White House. The couple enjoyed their wedding cake in the same room where they were married. During the ceremony, the cake was hidden behind a screen, which was removed when guests returned to the East Room for champagne, cake, and dancing. Fellow White House bride Alice Roosevelt Longworth, who married in 1906, was among the approximately 500 guests who attended the wedding. The bride's parents, President Lyndon B. Johnson and First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, can be seen watching proudly on the left side of this photograph. This photograph is part of a personal collection belonging to former White House Executive Chef Henry Haller. As executive chef from 1966-1987, Haller oversaw the food preparations for three wedding receptions at the White House for first daughters Luci Baines Johnson, Lynda Bird Johnson, and Tricia Nixon.

Courtesy of Henry & Carole Haller and Family

While the Johnsons had traditionally celebrated Christmas Day in Texas, they changed course in 1967, opting to stay in Washington instead. This was perhaps a result of several major life changes within the Johnson family, and the White House became the backdrop for those changes. In 1966, daughter Luci married Patrick Nugent and the couple had their wedding reception at the White House. The following year, they welcomed their first child, Patrick Lyndon, making the president and first lady grandparents. About six months after Patrick’s arrival, Lynda Bird Johnson married Captain Charles Robb in the East Room on December 9, 1967. The next year, they too became parents with the arrival of Lucinda Desha Robb.

A gingerbread cottage decorated the State Dining Room for President Lyndon B. Johnson's family in 1968. It was gifted to the White House by Edward E. Shapiro of Bedford Hills, New York. It is one of the earliest known to have been placed on the mahogany console table in front of the gilded pier mirror, where the back of the gingerbread can be viewed in the reflection.

Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

During 1967 and 1968, Mrs. Johnson began two new holiday traditions that continue today—the displays of the White House crèche and gingerbread house in the State Dining Room. While other Nativity scenes had previously been displayed, the White House did not have one in its permanent collection. Jane W. Engelhard donated an eighteenth-century Neapolitan crèche with figures made of terra cotta and intricately carved wood in 1967.6 This crèche remains in the White House Collection and continues to be displayed between the portraits of George and Martha Washington in the East Room. The other holiday tradition—display of a gingerbread house in the State Dining Room—was more spontaneous. Edward E. Shapiro of Bedford Hills, New York, gave a gingerbread house to the Johnsons in 1968—though this was not his first gingerbread gift. In fact, according to newspaper accounts Shapiro had previously sent a gingerbread house to Caroline Kennedy in 1961. Mrs. Johnson placed the small gingerbread cottage decorated in icing, candies, and gumdrops on the mahogany console table in the State Dining Room for visitors to see during the Christmas season.7 First Lady Patricia Nixon carried this custom forward but turned to White House Assistant Executive Chef Hans Raffert to provide the official gingerbread house, which he made in the traditional German A-frame style.8 The display of a White House gingerbread creation in the State Dining Room continues to the present.

This photograph is of a plaque that rests in the ground at the entrance to the Children's Garden on the White House grounds. The garden was created by President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, and the plaque reads, "To the White House Grounds from the President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, Christmas 1968."

National Park Service

During their last Christmas in Washington, President and Mrs. Johnson created something special for future grandchildren who would visit the White House. The Children’s Garden on the South Lawn features a small fishpond, child-sized chairs, and plaques of handprints and footprints set into a flagstone terrace. The first sets of prints for the garden belonged to their grandchildren, Patrick and Lucinda. It was gifted to the grounds by the Johnsons at Christmas 1968, and announced shortly before they left the White House.9 The Johnson family loved Christmas and spending the holiday together, whether they were in Texas or Washington, D.C. They participated in well-established White House traditions and invented a few of their own, all while maintaining their own family customs.