President Trump announced on Saturday evening that he’ll be spending Christmas in the White House, a decision prompted by Friday night’s partial government shutdown. Mr. Trump had previously planned to spend the holiday at Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach, Florida, seaside resort.
The decision to celebrate inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue marks the first time since 2000 that the nation’s chief executive will enjoy festivities inside the mansion. Previously, the Obamas had made a tradition of observing Christmas at rented beach retreats in Hawaii. And though President George W. Bush and his family always stayed in the Washington, D.C,. area for the holiday, a decision motivated by a desire to allow aides and Secret Service agents to celebrate with their own families, the Bushes regularly holed away for several days at Camp David, the rustic presidential retreat in the mountains of Maryland.
President and Mrs. Clinton, along with daughter Chelsea, are the last first family to enjoy a quiet Christmas on the second floor of the world’s most famous address.
In the days before the ease and access of travel, however, it was the exception, not the rule, for the president to be anywhere but the White House on Christmas. The mansion’s initial occupant, John Adams, spent the first holiday in the President’s House in 1800, only about two months after having moved into what was then a cold and drafty residence. The Adams family hosted a party on Christmas Day for their 4-year-old granddaughter.
In 1805, Thomas Jefferson, who played Christmas carols on his violin, celebrated the day with six of his grandchildren and over 100 of his friends. Thirty years later, Andrew Jackson’s children hung their stockings in the president’s bedroom and encouraged their father to do the same. Come morning, Old Hickory awoke to find his stuffed with slippers, a corn cob pipe and a bag of tobacco.
Christmas Eve of 1843 found President John Tyler, a newly-minted widower, hosting a party for friends, one of whom, Julie Gardiner, the daughter of Senator Daniel Gardiner of New York, would eventually become his second wife in June of the following year.
Abraham Lincoln, who had voted against making Christmas a legal holiday in the state of Illinois back in 1834, often treated the day as any other. In 1861, Mr. Lincoln held a cabinet meeting on Christmas Day, although he did host a dinner party later that evening. (In fairness to President Lincoln, however, it should be noted that December 25th wasn’t declared a federal holiday until 1870.)
Perhaps the most famous and momentous Christmas Eve at the White House, however, was in 1941 when President Roosevelt hosted Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Just over two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into World War II, FDR and Mr. Churchill stood in unison in the cold twilight on the South Portico of the White House to light the community Christmas tree.
“I spend this anniversary and festival far from my country, far from my family, yet I cannot truthfully say that I feel far from home,” the prime minister said in his message broadcast live across the world via radio. “This is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in deadly struggle, and, with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other …"
"Here, in the midst of war," he continued, "raging and roaring over all the lands and seas, creeping nearer to our hearts and homes, here, amid all the tumult, we have tonight the peace of the spirit in each cottage home and in every generous heart … Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.”
The dysfunctional political world in which President Trump finds himself this Christmas may pale in comparison to the terrible tumult of a world at war. But perhaps it is good for our nation’s 45th president and his family to observe Christ’s birth within the walls of a home so richly laden with memories of Christmases long ago.
If the history of America has taught us anything it is that crises come and crises go. Politicians will ruminate, pontificate, debate, and whatever the current stalemate it will fester and then eventually fade.
I hope President Trump may take a moment and stand out on that South Portico in the Christmas Eve twilight and think of the resilience and persistence of the old British Bulldog. And then I hope he goes back inside and hangs his stocking like Old Hickory and enjoys his Christmas with his family. That’s because, in the words of the former prime minister, “It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time.”