Archives Experience Newsletter - December 20, 2022
The holidays are a time for traditions, and we all have our own decorations and habits that make us unique. For my mom, it is the annual display of her nutcracker collection, which starts in the living room and spreads to the dining room. A small army lines the main hallway of her house. They vary in size, color and theme and bring the holiday season to life in her home, but they have one thing in common – not one of them has ever cracked a nut open!
Whether you consider decorating your house to make it the most festive in the neighborhood, or you don your best ugly sweater as you host an annual Christmas Eve party for your friends and family, individual traditions make us unique. Yet it is our collective traditions that bind us together.
This year, the White House is celebrating a milestone of one of the most time-honored traditions of the holidays: the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. One hundred years ago, President Calvin Coolidge started the tradition of placing a Christmas tree on the Ellipse, and this December, President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill held the 100th tree-lighting ceremony that’s now a staple of ushering in our national holiday celebration.
For our final newsletter of 2022, we’re delivering you some historic holiday cheer from the Archives. Thanks for being a loyal reader, and we’ll see you next year!
National Archives Foundation
Christmas with Coolidge
John Calvin Coolidge, Jr., became the 30th president of the United States suddenly, when President Warren G. Harding died of a heart attack in San Francisco. Born and raised in Vermont, Coolidge was the embodiment of his New England roots—he was honest, frugal and taciturn. Indeed, his reluctance to talk in social situations was legendary, earning him the nickname “Silent Cal.”
But Coolidge was a dedicated family man, and he could become quite animated when he was alone with his wife and their sons Calvin, Jr., and John. Remarkably, Calvin Coolidge preceded over the first iteration of one of the most beloved American traditions, the lighting of the National Christmas tree, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.
Lucretia Walker Hardy, who was the acting director of the D.C. Community Center Department at the time, set in motion the process that culminated in the lighting of the very first National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse. Hardy had written to the president’s secretary, Basic Slemp, on November 30, 1923, asking for permission to put a Christmas tree on the White House grounds. In the end, Paul D. Moody, president of Middlebury College in Vermont, donated the 45-foot-tall balsam fir, which was cut in mid-December and delivered to the White House shortly thereafter.
Decked out with 2,500 red, green and white electric bulbs donated by the Electric League of Washington, the tree stood ready on the Ellipse for the lighting ceremony. The Electric League saw the ceremony as an opportunity to showcase the advantages of electricity to the public.
The president and Mrs. Coolidge spent Christmas Eve preparing for the coming holiday. Mrs. Coolidge helped distribute food baskets with the Salvation Army, and the president sent a message to disabled veterans of World War I before he left his desk.
Then at 5 p.m., the president pressed a button that lit the bulbs on the National Christmas Tree. More than 6,000 people had gathered to see the spectacle and then to sing Christmas carols. The U.S. Marine Band and the Epiphany Church Choir also performed until 8 p.m.
The next day, the president and his family attended the Christmas service at the First Congregational Church and then sat down to a traditional Christmas dinner. Afterward, the family went to Walter Reed Hospital, where they visited with disabled veterans and watched the movie “Abraham Lincoln” with them. The visit lasted nearly three hours.
The 31st President of the United States, Herbert Hoover served a single term, from 1929 until 1933, in the midst of the worst depression the world had ever experienced. He continued the tradition of lighting a National Christmas Tree each December as a way to boost morale in the country and encourage his fellow Americans to believe better times were ahead.
Since its inception in 1924, the location of the National Christmas Tree had moved around a bit from its inaugural spot on the Ellipse. In 1931, the tree was a living 25-foot blue spruce on Sherman Plaza. President Hoover and his family attended the ceremony, at which the president told the attendees, “This is the season and this the occasion when the whole nation unites in good cheer and good wishes.” He then pushed a button, which turned on a buzzer that alerted another person to turn on the electricity to light the tree. According to the Washington Post, this practice continued until at least the 1980s.
Christmas 1941 was a bleak season in the United States. Barely two weeks previous, on December 7, the Japanese had bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, killing about 2,400 people and sinking or damaging 18 U.S. ships. The next day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan, and Congress obliged him less than an hour later. Four days later, on December 11, Germany and Italy declared war against the United States, and the U.S. retaliated by declaring war on those countries as well. Immediately, hundreds of thousands of young Americans rushed to military recruiting offices to enlist. Millions of American families were facing the prospect of seeing their loved ones leave home for the battlefields very soon.
On Christmas Eve, before he pressed the button that signaled the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, and with his great friend Winston Churchill by his side on the South Portico of the White House, FDR addressed the nation. He acknowledged that people everywhere were wondering how they could in good conscience celebrate the holiday, but then he counseled them, saying, “Our strongest weapon in this war is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies – more than any other day or any other symbol.
“Against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them, we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere.
“It is in that spirit, and with particular thoughtfulness of those, our sons and brothers, who serve in our armed forces on land and sea, near and far – those who serve for us and endure for us that we light our Christmas candles now across the continent from one coast to the other on this Christmas Eve.” FDR’s eloquence and steadiness were the gifts that his people needed most in that fearful time.
Christmas Tree Farm
Although the first National Christmas Tree was a cut tree from President Calvin Coolidge’s native state of Vermont, from 1924 through 1953, the National Christmas Tree was a living tree on or close to the White House that was decorated with lights.
In 1954, the National Christmas Tree was once again a cut tree, this time from Michigan, and it was installed on the Ellipse, as the first tree had been. Fifty live trees that represented the states, five territories, and District of Columbia were added to form a Pathway of Peace.
Cut trees were used from then until 1973. Since then, a living tree has been used as the National Christmas Tree, although it has been replaced several times as the trees have succumbed to disease and old age. The current tree is a 21-foot white fir that was planted on the Ellipse on October 30, 2021.
Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree
The National Archives are bursting with photographs of the arrivals of Christmas trees, year after year, at the White House. They come by any number of conveyances—by trailers pulled by trucks, by horse-drawn wagons, by flatbed Fords—and as often as not, the First Lady and her children and sometimes her grandchildren come out to receive the delivery.
It’s not just the National Christmas Tree that’s decorated and lit up on the South Lawn. There’s also the White House Christmas Tree, which has a place of honor indoors.
The date that the first Christmas tree was installed in the White House has been subject to considerable dispute, but the Blue Room has been the favored spot for an elaborately decorated tree since Jackie Kennedy placed the first tree devoted to a theme, Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” there. This year, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden announced that the theme of the White House Christmas tree and the rest of the decorations is “We the People.”