Archives Experience Newsletter - December 14, 2021
Deck the Halls!
Happy holidays from the National Archives Foundation! The holiday season is always one for tradition, especially at the White House. While some facts, like which president was the first to put up a Christmas tree, are up for debate, many of today’s elaborate holiday displays were started by First Ladies who brought traditions from their own homes to the Executive Mansion.
Whatever’s on your holiday to-do list, take a quick break with us to learn the history of some classic White House traditions. In a special feature of this newsletter, you can let us know which First Lady has decked the halls the best by voting for your favorite decorations. Plus, celebrate that your list of holiday preparations are likely dwarfed by that of the staff of the East Wing. What a relief!
National Archives Foundation
Two Holiday Firsts
Decorating the White House for the holidays falls within the purview of the First Lady, and many of them have embraced the task with gusto. Christmas trees did not become a common decoration in the public rooms of the White House until about the middle of the twentieth century. Prior to that time, many of the families who lived there celebrated with no trees at all, or with modest trees in their private spaces.
Mamie Eisenhower established the tradition of displaying a large, elaborately decorated Christmas tree in the East Room of the White House every year. Jackie Kennedy, with her impeccable personal style and devotion to historic preservation, was the first to introduce themed Christmas decorations. In 1961, the main tree was festooned with decorations based on The Nutcracker. The next year, Mrs. Kennedy focused on the theme of childhood for her decorations.
An Old-fashioned Christmas
First Lady Nancy Reagan fully embraced the task of decorating the White House for Christmas. Although volunteers have long been employed to get all the decorations up in good order, Mrs. Reagan was not above climbing a ladder to hang ornaments on the White House tree in the Blue Room. She was also a romantic who was not about to deny the President the opportunity to kiss her under the mistletoe, either.
Holiday celebrations in the Obama White House included observations for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa as well as Christmas. Back in 1979, Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Abraham Shemtov lobbied successfully for a National Menorah to be lit in Washington. That December, he participated in the first lighting ceremony with President Jimmy Carter.
Since then, the lighting of the menorah has been an established winter tradition in Washington. In 2016, President and Mrs. Obama and Rabbi Steven Exler watched Elijah and Shira Wiesel light a menorah in the East Room of the White House.
Michelle Obama’s Christmas themes included home, hearth, family, friendship, and honoring the members of the U.S. Armed Forces. She regularly invited children to tour the decorated White House and sample some holiday goodies prepared by the chefs. She even read ’Twas the Night before Christmas with Kermit the Frog!
The People’s (Gingerbread) House
Gingerbread houses are a beloved holiday tradition worldwide. At the White House, Assistant Chef Hans Raffert constructed the first decorative gingerbread house in 1969 for the Nixons.
All the successive administrations have continued the custom. The Trump White House Advent Calendar displays Laura Bush with one of her gingerbread houses. Here’s a time lapse video of chefs at the Obama Whitehouse creating their annual gingerbread house.
At Christmastime, everyone in the family joins in, including family pets. The First Families are no exceptions – their favorite furry friends are often right in the middle of the celebrations. Check out these photos of White House pets enjoying the seasonal festivities: