From lighting menorahs to nutcracker-themed trees in the Blue Room, today we have a short primer on Christmas and Hanukkah in the White House.
Read on, or listen to this short episode for the answer.
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When did presidents start celebrating Hanukkah?
Before we talk about the first president to light a menorah, there’s a quick presidential Hanukkah anecdote from long ago; George Washington at Valley Forge. The source is Louisa Hart, who wrote in her diary about the night Washington visited her home.
Apparently, General Washington was walking among his troops one winter night and noticed a soldier sitting apart from the others, his face lit by two small candles. The soldier was a Polish immigrant, and he told Washington about Hanukkah, a holiday celebrating a victory against a tyrannical leader that had more resources and was better armed.
But after that, it was 200 years until a president publicly lit a menorah. In 1979, Jimmy Carter gave remarks at a menorah-lighting ceremony at Lafayette Park. After that, every single president has participated in such a ceremony.
Bill Clinton was the first president to light a menorah inside the White House in 1993, an event that was made more famous due to the menorah candle setting fire to the hair of a young girl. President Clinton snuffed the fire out with his hands.
We’re focusing on Christmas and Hanukkah today, but as a quick holiday sidenote, Barack Obama is (so far) the only president to host a passover seder in the White House.
Almost every president has identified as a Christian of one faith or another, and thus celebrated Christmas. In the 19th century this was traditionally a private affair with family and friends, but it grew to a more public celebration in the 1900s. The first president to have a Christmas party was John Adams in 1800, which the family hosted in honor of their granddaughter Susanna. Andrew Jackson famously hosted a Christmas “frolic” in 1835, which featured an indoor snowball fight with balls of cotton.
There has been some debate over which president had the first Christmas tree. New Hampshire’s very own Franklin Pierce has been cited as the piney progenitor, but all evidence points to Benjamin Harrison in 1889 as being the first. Harrison had a tree in the upstairs Oval Room which was decorated with lit candles. Ten years later, William McKinley was urged in letters to the editor to push back against the “Christmas tree habit” and forego a tree in the White House. One author derided the Christmas tree as “unpatriotic”, as it was a German tradition to keep a tree in the house. Grover Cleveland is reported as the first president to decorate his tree with electric lights in 1894.
In 1961, First Lady Jacquelline Kennedy started the tradition of selecting a “theme” for the White House decorations, including the tree. Kennedy’s first theme was dolls from The Nutcracker Suite. (Click here to see a photo gallery of these themes.)
Standouts are Michelle Obama’s military badges and medals, Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson’s gingerbread tree, and Pat Nixon’s theme dedicated to former president James Monroe.
As to what tree is picked to stand in the Blue Room, it is through a competition held by the National Christmas Tree Association. So far the winners have been 57 firs, 6 spruces, and one solitary pine in 1968.
We at Civics 101 are going to be on a short holiday ourselves, we’ll get back to your questions after the new year. Click here to support our show and put a little something in our constitutional stocking!