White House Holiday Traditions Through the Years

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Published December 18, 2011

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas and the holiday spirit has been in full swing at the White House

One of the real feats of the holidays at the White House is simply keeping up with the daily demand for holiday sweets — this year’s white chocolate-covered gingerbread manse weighs in at almost 400 pounds (complete with electrical wiring) — for the 100,000 some odd guests who come through in the month of December.  

To deal with the masses, current chef Bill Yosses has put a limit on how many sweet treats guests can have at receptions — just four. 

Given the ample celebrations revolving around the holidays at the White House nowadays, it’s hard to believe that at one point in time — before electricity — presidential wintertime traditions were a private affair. Prior to the 20th century, it wasn’t even an official event. 

The first tree went up in 1889 for President Benjamin Harrison and his family and was placed in a second floor oval room used as a family parlor. Electric Christmas lights weren’t introduced until 1894, three years after the White House was electrified, delighting President Cleveland’s young daughters. 

In the years since, the celebrations have evolved as each family puts its own spin on the holiday. In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt didn’t approve of chopping down perfectly good living, breathing evergreens, so he banned them in the White House. Except, unbeknownst to the president, his son smuggled one in and hid it in the upstairs sewing closet so he could have one like all of his peers.

Here are some White House holiday traditions handed down through the years:

1834: White House Snowball Fights
President Andrew Jackson hosted a big bash at the White House for his children and his friends’ children. The highlight had to be the indoor snowball fight made possible by snowballs made of cotton balls. At the start of his second term, Jackson scored, receiving slippers, a corncob pipe, and a tobacco bag in his stocking.

1889: First White House Tree
President Benjamin Harrison and his family introduced the first indoor White House Christmas tree in the upstairs oval room, the family’s private parlor. Because the White House did not yet have electrical power, the family decorated the pine branches with candles.

1895: First White House Tree with Christmas Lights
Since electricity was installed at the White House in 1891, President Grover Cleveland, back for a second albeit non-consecutive term, and his family did away with the fire hazard of candles and covered the tree in lights. An avid duck hunter, President Cleveland gave each of his Cabinet members a personally shot bird as a gift. Goodbye Christmas goose — say hello to the Christmas duck!

1903: Christmas Carnivals
President Theodore Roosevelt and his wife hosted a carnival at the White House for more than 500 children. They served a favorite of many past presidents — ice cream molded into the shape of Santa Claus. President Roosevelt did not approve of chopping down evergreens, so he banned them from the White House. However, his son smuggled one in anyway and hid it in the sewing closet.

1923: National Christmas Tree Lighting
During his time at the White House, President Calvin Coolidge presided over the first public lighting of the of the National Christmas tree. Lit by more than 2,000 red and white bulbs, the tree came from his home state of Vermont.

1933: Gift Wrapping
First lady Eleanor Roosevelt hid her family’s presents in the “Christmas Closet” in the third-floor solarium. Even more impressive is that she was known to hand wrap all of them herself. To ensure that she didn’t give the same gift to her five children, their spouses, and 13 grandchildren, she kept a detailed list as to who received what.

1961: First Themed White House Christmas
Jacqueline Kennedy established the tradition of selecting an annual theme for the tree. She chose the “Nutcracker Suite” that first year, and it became a first lady favorite. Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton subsequently used the theme during their respective years in the White House.

1979: Lighting of the National Menorah
Prior to 1979, Christmas was the primary winter holiday celebrated in the White House. President Carter was the first to officially recognize the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, delivering remarks in Lafayette Park while lighting the new National Menorah, a tradition that lives on today. In 1993, President Clinton hosted the first official menorah lighting inside the White House.

1995: The White House Gingerbread House
Over the holidays, the White House's State Dining Room always showcases a spectacular gingerbread house that can take up to five months to create. During the Clinton years, the White House's pastry chef created a replica of the first lady's girlhood home on Wisner Street in Park Ridge, Ill. The details included tiny stockings hung on the chimney with care.

2001: White House Hanukkah Party
Twenty-two years after the first lighting of the National Menorah, President Bush hosted the first Hanukkah party, with an 100-year old menorah on loan from the Jewish Museum in New York City. And with more than 600 guests attending his last party while in office, it was no small affair.

2006: Cookie Trees and Present-Shaped Cakes Grace the Holiday Menu
"Too much" was not in the vocabulary of those planning the menu for the 2006 White House holiday receptions. The spread included massive shrimp and cheese displays, stuffed turkey breasts, a cured Virginia ham, beef tenderloin, and lollipop lamb chops, in addition to a variety of sides from soufflés to tamales. For dessert, guests were tempted with a towering tree made of pecan sandies, a red hat box cake, a white pound cake wrapped in red marzipan frosting and tied with a red ribbon, and a chocolate Yule log with meringue mushrooms and white chocolate magnolia leaves, along with so much more.

2007: Themed Treats
With a theme of "Holidays in the National Parks," this year's treats included cookies decorated in the shapes of animals like grizzly bears, eagles, and mountain lions, and others made to look like leaves from trees such as aspens, maples, and magnolias. There was even a log cabin cake and chocolate mice.

2008: White House Videos Debut Starring Barney the Dog
The George W. Bush White House was fond of shooting video shorts featuring their Scottish terrier Barney. He starred in 2008's "A Red, White, and Blue Christmas" and for his role he received an extra doggy treat, as per his contract. (That last past is a fib, but you believed it for a second, didn't you?)

2009: Christmas Outside of the White House
Since moving into the White House, President Obama and his family have skipped town over Christmas and flown west to his birth state of Hawaii. One can hardly blame him for trading the cold for the sandy surf. And though he gives up the White House, he hardly downsizes, staying in a three-home compound with views of Kailua Bay and Mount Olomana. The Hawaii Reporter ran the numbers and estimates that the trip costs taxpayers about $1.5 million.

2010: Decorations Made of Food
Last year, food wasn’t only for eating at the White House — it was also used to decorate. Following a theme of “Simple Gifts,” dried pomegranates, artichokes, and yellow pear gourds were used to make wreaths for the East Colonnade, according to Marion Burros of Rodale.com. The first lady brought back an old White House tradition of gingerbread cookie ornaments for the tree. Children helped decorate the cookies and created holiday cards using fruits and vegetables as stamps.

For from the DailyMeal:

10 Ornaments You’d Rather Eat 

13 Office Holiday Party Fouls 

20 Easy Holiday Party Ideas 

How to Fight Stains with Household Ingredients 

25 Best Party Foods Your Guests Will Love 

 


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