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Caroline Kennedy and a friend place candy canes on the Christmas tree in the Entrance Hall in 1962. The Kennedy family dog, Clipper, looks on. The tree was placed in the Entrance Hall that year because the Blue Room was under renovation and restoration.

John F. Kennedy 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 they 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.

President John F. Kennedy speaks during the 1962 National Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and their children Caroline and John Jr. only spent two holiday seasons in the White House. They continued a number of seasonal traditions while also creating their own. In 1961, President Kennedy was scheduled to light the National Christmas Tree, a tradition started by President Calvin Coolidge in 1923. Ultimately, he did not attend the event; his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had suffered a stroke so the president left Washington to be with his father.1 Vice President Lyndon Johnson performed the ceremonial lighting on behalf of the president.2 The following year, President Kennedy delivered a brief speech before lighting the National Christmas Tree. “This has been a year of peril when the peace has been sorely threatened. But it has been a year when peril was faced and when reason ruled,” Kennedy remarked, likely a reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis. He gave thanks to those serving in the military, Peace Corps, and Foreign Service, and reminded the crowds that “it is the peacemakers who are truly blessed.”3 The president finished his speech and then pushed the button, illuminating 5,000 multi-colored lights and delighting thousands of onlookers.4

In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy decorated the Blue Room Christmas tree in the theme of The Nutcracker. Since then, first ladies have selected particular themes for their Christmas decorations.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Inside the White House, Mrs. Kennedy continued a tradition started by her predecessor, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, placing a Christmas tree in the Blue Room. Mrs. Eisenhower had taken Christmas decorations to a new level at the White House, placing trees, wreaths, ribbons, and seasonal décor throughout the mansion. Mrs. Kennedy’s Christmas decorations were simple but elegant: red and white floral arrangements in the parlors; trees stood in the Cross Hall, East Room, and outside the North Entrance; evergreens surrounded the George P.A. Healy portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the State Dining Room; and holly was wrapped around the chandelier in the Entrance Hall.5 She decorated the tree in the Blue Room with a specific theme, as it served as the focal point of the decorations. Inspired by the timeless ballet The Nutcracker, the Blue Room tree was outfitted with snowflakes, candy canes, miniature candles, toys, gingerbread cookies, and topped with a gold star.6 The following year, many of the ornaments and decorations were repurposed and reused, but there were two significant changes—the placement of the Christmas tree in the Entrance Hall and the addition of a crèche. The tree could not be set up in the Blue Room because Mrs. Kennedy was overseeing its renovation and restoration. The crèche, or more commonly known as a Nativity Scene, was set up in the East Room between the portraits of George and Martha Washington—a tradition that continues today.7

The crèche on display in the East Room in 1962. It was placed in the doorway leading out to the East Terrace between the portraits of George and Martha Washington.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Like preceding administrations, the Kennedys hosted many Christmas parties and receptions throughout the month of December. This included the annual White House staff Christmas party, where employees and their families listened to Christmas music, danced, and enjoyed festive foods. The president and first lady also gave every staff member a gift—in 1961, it was a photograph of the White House from the South Fountain; in 1962, a print of the Red Room based on a painting by Edward Lehman and autographed by the president and first lady. While they never had the opportunity to give them to staff, the Kennedys had prepared a similar print of the Green Room for Christmas 1963.8 They also invited the children of diplomats to attend White House events. During the Lyndon Johnson administration, this evolved into an annual Christmas party just for diplomatic children.

President John F. Kennedy celebrates Christmas with his family at the residence of C. Michael Paul in Palm Beach, Florida. Left to right: Caroline Kennedy; Gustavo Paredes (son of Mrs. Kennedy's assistant, Providencia "Provi" Paredes); First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, holding her nephew Anthony Radziwill; John F. Kennedy, Jr.; President Kennedy; Prince Stanislaus Radziwill of Poland; Princess Lee Radziwill (Mrs. Kennedy’s sister), holding her daughter, Anna Christina Radziwill. Also pictured: Kennedy family dogs, Clipper (left) and Charlie (held by Mrs. Kennedy).

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Christmas Day celebrations were rather simple affairs for the Kennedy family in Palm Beach, Florida. In 1961, the mood was solemn, as the president’s father was still recuperating at St. Mary’s Hospital. The Kennedys opened gifts with their children on Christmas morning and then attended Mass in the hospital chapel; the president’s brother, Edward “Ted” Kennedy, served as an altar boy for the service. The family reconvened that night for dinner, feasting on turkey, all the trimmings, and “mince pie.”9 The following year things were certainly more joyful, as Joseph Kennedy was home to celebrate the holiday with his family. The president and first lady attended Mass at St. Edward’s Roman Catholic Church on Christmas morning, opened presents, enjoyed an afternoon cruise on the presidential yacht Honey Fitz, and returned home for a quiet family meal.10 The Kennedy family loved Christmas, and they cherished the opportunity to participate in well-established White House traditions while simultaneously maintaining their own family customs.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (wearing a blue swimsuit) waterskies behind a motor boat off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida; the presidential yacht, Honey Fitz, sits in the water at center.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

This article was originally published December 3, 2020

Footnotes & Resources

  1. Miami Herald, December 20, 1961.
  2. The Chicago Tribune, December 20, 1961.
  3. John F. Kennedy, “Remarks at the Pageant of Peace Ceremonies," December 17, 1962,
  4. The Baltimore Sun, December 18, 1962.
  6. Images from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum; Leader-Telegram, December 14, 1961.
  7.; The Neapolitan crèche on display at the White House today was gifted in 1967 by Jane Engelhard. It dates to the eighteenth century and was made in Naples, Italy. The one that Mrs. Kennedy displayed in 1962 was loaned to the White House by Mrs. Howell Howard. It was an eighteenth-century crèche with Neapolitan terra cotta figures. See Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 12, 1962.
  8. The Record, December 22, 1962;
  9. Tampa Bay Times, December 26, 1961;
  10. The Logan Daily News, December 26, 1962; Daily Independent Journal, December 27, 1962.

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