Snowball Fights, Elaborate Décor and Cherished Family Memories: A Timeline of Holiday Traditions at the White House

Read all about how holiday traditions at the White House got their starts and how they still continue today.

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It has arguably been the most contentious, tumultuous and divided year in recent history for American politics. At this time of year, let’s put partisanship and hatred aside. So pop that champagne, spin the Dreidel and reflect on the White House Holiday traditions and rituals that can unite us, rather than keep us apart. What follows is a brief history of the highlights of holiday traditions celebrated in Washington, D.C.

1800, First White House Christmas Party:

“President and Mrs. Adams gave it for their four-year-old granddaughter Suzannah, who was living with them. The Adams’ invited the children of “official” Washington to the party.”

1834, An Indoor Snowball Fight:

President Andrew Jackson threw an elaborate Christmas party for his children and grandchildren. “It included games, dancing, a grand dinner and culminated in an indoor ‘snowball fight’ with specially fashioned cotton balls.”

1889, The First Tree:

“Prior to the 20th century, Christmas at the White House was celebrated privately. The first White House Christmas tree, pre-electricity, was decorated with candles and toys and placed in President Benjamin Harrison’s living quarters.”

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1894, First Christmas Lights:

“The first electric lights on a family tree were used during the presidency of Grover Cleveland. (Electricity dates to 1891 in the White House).”

1903, A ‘Green’ Christmas:

“Noted conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt didn’t believe in cutting down trees for Christmas decorations. Instead, he threw a carnival for 500 children complete with dinner, dancing, souvenirs and Santa-shaped ice cream. However, Roosevelt’s son Archie defied the Christmas tree ban and smuggled a small tree into an upstairs sewing room.”

1909, A ‘Blue’ Christmas:

“President William H. Taft was the first president to have a tree in the public portion of the White House. His children helped him decorate that first tree in the Blue Room. Today, the Blue Room still hosts the official tree (one of many trees in the White House) and many presidents and their families have posed in front of it for their official Christmas photo.”

1923, A National Tree:

“President Calvin Coolidge expanded the celebration beyond the Blue Room with the lighting of the first National Christmas Tree, located outside the White House in a public viewing area.” See this year’s lighting here:

1929, First Official Decorated Christmas Tree:

“First Lady Lou Henry Hoover established the custom of decorating an official tree in the White House. Since that time, the honor of trimming the Christmas tree on the state floor has belonged to our first ladies. The tree stands in the oval Blue Room, an elegant space honored as the center of holiday splendor.

1954, Pageant of Peace:

The celebration started by Calvin Coolidge became the month-long Pageant of Peace following World War II and the Korean War as a way to commemorate the end of the wars. Today, the lighting of the National Christmas Tree and the Pageant of Peace on the White House Ellipse is the centerpiece of the holidays in Washington, DC. The First Family officially lights the National Tree and National Menorah in special ceremonies. Throughout the month, visitors can enjoy nightly musical entertainment, visit Santa’s Workshop and explore the mini-Christmas trees each featuring homemade ornaments from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

1961, Themes

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“First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy started the tradition of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas tree.” That year the tree was decorated with ornamental toys, birds, angels and characters from the “Nutcracker Suite” ballet. “For the American Flowers Tree in 1969, First Lady Patricia Nixon arranged for disabled workers in Florida to make velvet and satin balls featuring each states official flower.”

Over her eight White House holiday seasons, First Lady Hillary Clinton showcased the talents of America’s artistic communities.

First Lady Laura Bush varied the decorations, including the themes of “All Creatures Grand and Small in 2002” highlighting her love of animals and the importance of pets to White House history and a patriotic “A Red, White and Blue Christmas” in 2008.” “The theme had been inspired by letters from Americans that began arriving after September 11th suggesting the White House have a red, white and blue Christmas.”

First Lady Michelle Obama announced the 2010 White House Christmas theme of ‘Simple Gifts’ and she explained, ‘The greatest blessings of all are the ones that don’t cost a thing: the time that we spend with our loved ones, the freedoms we enjoy as Americans and the joy we feel from reaching out to those in need.'”

1979, The First National Menorah:

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“President Jimmy Carter was the first to officially recognize the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah when he lit the nation’s first official Menorah. Today, the presidential lighting ceremony continues and the National Menorah is part of the Pageant of Peace.”

1995, A Chocolate Christmas:

“A highlight of the holiday decorations has become the white chocolate replica of the White House. A tradition since the 1960s, today visitors will find this delicious architectural feat, which can weigh up to 300 pounds and take months to create, displayed in the State Dining Room. In 1995, the White House pastry chef also created a replica of First Lady Hillary Clinton’s girlhood home on Wisner Street in Park Ridge, Illinois. No detail was left unturned, including tiny stocking hung by the chimney with care.”


Planning to visit the Nation’s Capital This Holiday Season?

For more information on holidays at the White House and how you can see the decorations, visit www.whitehouse.gov/holidays.

For more information on visiting the National Christmas Tree and the Pageant of Peace, visit www.thenationaltree.org.

Looking for more fun things to do in the nation’s capital this holiday season? Check out this guide to winter holidays for more travel ideas!

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