- Nineteenth-century White House Christmases were not grand affairs. Some first families decorated the house with simple boughs of greens and wreaths. They often brought their own traditions with them and privately celebrated with family and friends.
- According to later accounts, the first White House Christmas party was held in December 1800. President John Adams and First Lady Abigail Adams held it for their four-year-old granddaughter Susanna Boylston Adams, who was living with them. They invited government officials and their children to the party.
- According to family tradition, President Andrew Jackson's 1835 "frolic" for the children of his household was one of the most elaborate parties ever held at the White House. It included games, dancing and a grand dinner, and ended with an indoor "snowball fight" using specially made cotton balls.
- The first known Christmas tree in the White House was placed upstairs in the Second Floor Oval Room (then used as a family parlor and library) in 1889 (during the Benjamin Harrison administration). It was decorated with candles for the Harrison grandchildren.
- Not all White House families after the Harrisons set up Christmas trees. The tradition typically depended on one of the following: the presence of young children or grandchildren; if the first families were in residence at the White House during the holiday; or if the family traditionally celebrated Christmas with a tree.
- Documentation suggests the first electric lights on a family tree were used in 1894 during the presidency of Grover Cleveland. (Electricity was installed in the White House in 1891).
- One popular myth suggests that Theodore Roosevelt "banned" Christmas trees at the White House, but there is little evidence to support this beyond the Roosevelts not putting up a tree. The Roosevelts traditionally celebrated the holiday with gifts, church service, and a family meal, but they did not celebrate with a tree. In 1902, Archie Roosevelt snuck a small tree into the White House and hid it upstairs in a closet. He later revealed the decorated tree to his family, starting a new family tradition. The president was amused and allowed it to continue while the family lived at the White House. Historians, commentators, and writers later reasoned that Roosevelt didn’t have a large tree because of his beliefs in conservationism, when in fact it was because the family did not traditionally celebrate Christmas with a tree. The custom of a "Christmas tree" in every house is a relatively modern one.
- The Taft children—Robert, Helen, and Charlie—placed the first tree in the Blue Room on the State Floor in 1912. President William Howard Taft and First Lady Helen Taft were away on a trip to Panama, so the Christmas tree was a surprise for the seven young Laughlin and Herron cousins, who with their parents were guests at the White House.
- Maitre d' and butler Alonzo Fields recalled President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cherished Christmas family tradition in his memoir, My 21 Years in the White House (1960): “They always braved the hazards of fire by having a Christmas tree lighted with candles in the East Hall. The family tradition included reading of Charles Dickens's Christmas Carol by the president. The gathering of the family with the President and Mrs. Roosevelt, the president's mother, the children and grandchildren made a comely family group of four generations.”
- Although previous presidential administrations displayed Christmas trees indoors throughout the State Floor, it was First Lady Mamie Eisenhower who consistently placed a tree in the Blue Room.
- First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas tree in the Blue Room in 1961. That year, the tree was decorated with ornamental toys, birds, angels, and characters from the "Nutcracker Suite" ballet.
- The tradition of installing the official tree in the Blue Room was interrupted twice. In 1962, the tree was displayed in the Entrance Hall because of renovation work. In 1969, First Lady Patricia Nixon chose the Entrance Hall for the American Flowers Tree, which was decorated with velvet and satin balls made by disabled workers in Florida and featuring each state’s official flower.
- The National Christmas Tree Association has held a national competition since 1966 for the official White House Blue Room tree. To qualify, growers must first win their state or regional competitions. Being named National Grand Champion is a major achievement.
- Since 1967, an eighteenth-century Neapolitan crèche has been on display in the East Room of the White House. It was donated by Charles and Jayne Engelhard of Far Hills, New Jersey.
- In 1969, White House Assistant Executive Chef Hans Raffert created a traditional German A-frame gingerbread house for the Nixons’ first Christmas in the White House. This became an annual tradition during the Richard Nixon administration and continues today.
- The first cranberry tree was put on display in the Red Room in 1975 during the Gerald R. Ford administration.
- The record for the number of trees in the White House was held for many years by the Dwight Eisenhower administration when 26 trees filled the Executive Mansion in 1959. That mark has been eclipsed on a number of occasions: the Bushes’ “Nutcracker Ballet” theme (47 trees) in 1990; the Clintons’ “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” theme (32 trees) in 1995; the Bushes’ “Home for the Holidays” theme (49 trees) in 2001; the Obamas’ “A Timeless Tradition” theme (62 trees) in 2015; and the Trumps’ “American Treasures” theme (41 trees and more than 40 topiary trees in the East Colonnade) in 2018.
White House Blue Room Christmas Trees by State of Origin Since 1961
- North Carolina: 13
- Pennsylvania: 11
- Wisconsin: 8
- Washington: 7
- West Virginia: 4
- Ohio: 3
- Indiana: 2
- Michigan: 2
- New York: 2
- Oregon: 2
- Massachusetts: 1
- Missouri: 1
- Vermont: 1
- Anonymously Donated from New England: 1
- Unknown: 1
Types of Blue Room Christmas Trees by Number of Occurrences Since 19611
- Firs: 52
- Spruces: 7
- Pines: 1
President Calvin Coolidge was the first chief executive to preside over the National Christmas tree lighting ceremony, doing so on the Ellipse in 1923. Today, the Christmas Pageant of Peace, held there annually since 1954, includes the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. This interdenominational celebration features the appearance of the first family for the lighting, as well as musical and dance performances.
1 Includes Christmas 2015. Although previous presidential administrations displayed Christmas trees indoors, it was First Lady Mamie Eisenhower who consistently placed a tree in the Blue Room and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy who established the tradition of selecting a decorative theme for the Blue Room Christmas tree in 1961. The Blue Room tree tradition was interrupted twice. In 1962, the tree was moved to the Entrance Hall because of renovation work. In 1969, First Lady Patricia Nixon chose to display the tree in the Entrance Hall to make it more visible.
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About the White House Historical Association
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy envisioned a restored White House that conveyed a sense of history through its decorative and fine arts. She sought to inspire Americans, especially children, to explore and engage with American history and its presidents. In 1961, the nonprofit, nonpartisan White House Historical Association was established to support her vision to preserve and share the Executive Mansion’s legacy for generations to come. Supported entirely by private resources, the Association’s mission is to assist in the preservation of the state and public rooms, fund acquisitions for the White House permanent collection, and educate the public on the history of the White House. Since its founding, the Association has given more than $115 million to the White House in fulfillment of its mission.
To learn more about the White House Historical Association, please visit WhiteHouseHistory.org.
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