Every year, when the decorations come out and the tree goes up, that’s when it finally feels like Christmastime. I’m a firm believer that Christmas can’t start until I’ve eaten Thanksgiving turkey (and an absurd amount of mashed potatoes), so we usually start tuning into the Christmas season the weekend after. And in the past 10 years or so, decorating not only includes helping to trim our own family tree, but my grandmother’s tree as well.
Putting up my grandma’s tree is like a step back in time. She has dozens of ornaments from every trip she went on in her life. This includes ornaments from Austria, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, and everywhere in between. She has truly been to a lot of amazing places, and hanging these ornaments reminds me of the long and full life she’s lived (she’s 96 now). The other half of the ornaments on her tree are a series of White House Christmas ornaments. She has every official ornament the White House has issued since at least the early 80’s – decades worth. As a history geek, I love these almost as much as her travel ornaments! Each year they are different and represent a different president, or a different White House tradition. And because of this, I’ve been fascinated by the White House Christmas decorations. So I’ve decided to give you some fun facts!
- 19th century White House christmases were very low-key. The White House was more of a private residence than it is today. Formal, public celebrations as we know today didn’t start until the 20th century.
- The first Christmas tree in the White House was placed in the Yellow Oval room – sort of like a family room in 1889 by Benjamin Harrison’s administration.
- The first electric-lit tree was in 1894, during President Grover Cleveland’s administration – after electricity was installed in the White House in 1891.
- President Calvin Coolidge hosted the first National Christmas Tree lighting on the Ellipse in 1923. It has become a White House Christmas tradition ever since, and usually includes an appearance by the entire first family.
- First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, wife of President Herbert Hoover, began the tradition of decorating an official tree in 1929 – since then, decorating the official Christmas tree is a responsibility of our first ladies. It is always kept in the oval Blue Room.
- First Lady Jackie Kennedy first began the tradition of setting a theme to the White House decor in 1961. That year’s tree was decorated under the theme “Nutcracker Suite.”
- The record number of trees in the White House for a long time was 26, under the Eisenhower administration. More recently, that record has been broken by having 36 trees during the Clinton administration in 1997, and 27 trees during the Bush administration in 2008.
Christmas in DC is really a sight to see – I was there in December 2013, but have never been inside the White House. I would recommend the Capitol tree – it’s huge and also very beautiful! The Botanical Gardens (near the Capitol) also had a lot of fun festive decor. And I would definitely ice skate next to the National Archives. How fun is it to frolic next to the Declaration of Independence? (Maybe only fun to me…) I’ve always wanted to see the White House decor, and maybe one day I will. For now, I will just look at pictures online of the perfectly decorated, ultra-festive halls of the White House to get me in the Christmas spirit, and I’ll forever appreciate the history on my Grandma’s tree.