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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

White House Christmas Traditions

Patricia Nixon's Enduring Legacy

  • Bob Bostock Curator of the "People Were Her Project" exhibit at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library

Few first ladies enjoyed Christmas as exuberantly and creatively as did Pat Nixon. During the five holiday seasons she spent in the White House, Mrs. Nixon introduced traditions that continue to the present day. She set a standard for festooning the Executive Mansion during the holidays that every first lady since has honored and built on.

For most of the nineteenth century, first families celebrated Christmas privately and modestly, as did most Americans. The first documented Christmas tree to appear in the Executive Mansion was in 1889, when President and Mrs. Benjamin Harrison placed an evergreen in the family quarters to delight their grandchildren. It took another 23 years before a tree was placed on the State floor, during President and Mrs. Taft’s final Christmas in the White House, in December 1912.

The President and Mrs. Nixon, along with daughter Tricia, during their first Christmas in the White House. The official Christmas tree was placed in the Entrance Hall in 1969, but was returned to its customary location in the Blue Room the next year and every year thereafter.

The Richard Nixon Foundation

Christmas celebrations at the White House grew gradually over the years that followed based on personal preferences and tastes of the occupants. Mamie Eisenhower held the record for many years by installing 26 trees one year, spread across every floor of the house. In 1961, Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of selecting a theme for the Blue Room tree.

Eight years later, Pat Nixon presided over the first of the Nixons’ five presidential Christmases. As Mary Evans Seeley, a chronicler of the holidays at the White House put it, “At Christmas, the Nixons, more than any previous First Family, allowed their private home to become the most public house in America.”1 Christmas at the Nixon White House reflected Mrs. Nixon’s commitment to make the White House more accessible to more people than ever before.

The First Lady welcomes Santa Claus to a party for the White House residence staff a week before Christmas 1973.

The Richard Nixon Foundation 

In 1971, during her third Christmas as first lady, Mrs. Nixon explained her approach to the holidays to House and Garden magazine: “Before we came to the White House, our friends always looked to us to see what surprises we were going to give them at Christmas, with our decorations, our ‘open house’ party. We’ve always tried to make Christmas special and different. At the White House we enjoy giving surprises, too.”2 Many of those “surprises” became enduring traditions.

One of the most memorable traditions Mrs. Nixon inaugurated was the annual Candlelight Tours for the public. In announcing the tours, Mrs. Nixon said she wanted people, especially those working in Washington who would not be able to tour the House during the day, to see the Mansion “aglow with the magic and spirit of Christmas.”3 The tours were immediately popular, drawing thousands of people each night.

Mrs. Nixon greets visitors on the steps of the North Portico during the 1972 Candlelight Tours.

The Richard Nixon Foundation

Julie Nixon Eisenhower recalled that “fires burned in the Red, Green, and Blue rooms, and the chandeliers and wall sconces were turned so low they appeared to be candles. Rotating ensembles from [armed forces bands] played Christmas carols in the Grand Foyer. The atmosphere was magical.”4 The public Candlelight Tours became a much-loved annual tradition at the White House for more than thirty years.

Another enduring Christmas tradition Mrs. Nixon began is the White House gingerbread house. Although some previous first ladies had included a gingerbread house as part of their Christmas decorations, Mrs. Nixon made it an annual tradition which has continued uninterrupted ever since.

In 1969, at Mrs. Nixon’s request, White House Sous Chef Hans Raffert created a relatively simple, completely edible, A-frame gingerbread house. The charming confection, which was placed on a side table in the State Dining Room, weighed approximately 40 pounds.

Mrs. Nixon and daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower appreciating the details of the 1971 White House gingerbread house.

The Richard Nixon Foundation

Over the years, the White House gingerbread house has become increasingly elaborate, as successive White House pastry teams sought to top previous year’s creations. This year’s gingerbread house includes a tableau of American landmarks, including Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and the Alamo, and weighs nearly 400 pounds!

Tricia Nixon Cox recently reflected on what inspired her mother’s approach to Christmas. “To my mother, Christmas meant giving more than receiving. In the White House, there’s a special setting to give back to the whole nation at Christmas time. Her innovations – the candlelight tours, the gingerbread house – evoked a simpler time in our country’s history.”

A December 1973 snowfall on the day a party was being held for the children of members of the Diplomatic Corps in Washington prompted Mrs. Nixon to start another, less permanent, tradition. At her suggestions, members of her staff built a snowman on the South Lawn just outside the entrance to the Diplomatic Reception Room, where it could be seen from the Blue Room.

The President and Mrs. Nixon on the South Lawn enjoy a snowman created by members of Mrs. Nixon's staff, December 17, 1973.

The Richard Nixon Foundation

Joni Stevens, who worked in the First Lady’s appointments office, recently remembered that day. “The snow was fine and dry; not suitable for making a snowman. So we asked the groundskeepers who were plowing the south driveway to put some snow into trash cans. We added some water to that snow to make it packable.” The cheery snowman delighted all the children who attended for the party later that day.

Mrs. Nixon was also responsible for renewing an earlier tradition, which had been absent for 25 years, of placing wreaths on all the windows on the North façade of the Executive Mansion.5 Unlike earlier years, however, the beribboned wreaths were visible both day and night, thanks to Mrs. Nixon’s successful project to light the exterior of the White House every evening for the first time in its history.

The Nixon Family poses for a portrait in front of 1971's official Christmas tree in the Blue Room. This photo is among the family's favorite family portraits from their White House years.

The Richard Nixon Foundation

According to author Alvin Rosenbaum, “Mrs. Nixon outdid her predecessors in Christmas décor, receptions, and entertainments.”6 But Cindy Vanden Heuvel Tague, who worked in Mrs., Nixon’s office from 1970-1974, recently observed that was not what motivated Mrs. Nixon’s efforts to make Christmas at the White House truly special. “Mrs. Nixon wanted the White House at Christmas to be a warm, welcoming place – festive, friendly, with a homey feel. She wanted everyone to have a wonderful experience.”

In the fifty years since Mrs. Nixon first celebrated Christmas at the White House, each of her successors has been inspired to ensure that holiday visitors to the White House enjoy an unforgettable experience. In no small part, Pat Nixon’s Yuletide legacy continues to delight all those who visit the Mansion during this festive time of year.