White House Holiday Traditions

From the first tree to themed holiday decorations, long-standing tradition guides White House holiday celebrations

White House Holiday Traditions
Flickr/United States Government Work

While it’s just starting to feel like Christmas outside, the holiday spirit has been in full swing at the White House. After months of secret planning, and more than 3,500 hours of work required to hang thousands of feet of garland, numerous 14-foot trees to put up, and hundreds of pounds of cookie dough and gingerbread to bake, according to ABC News, first lady Michelle Obama revealed this year’s theme of "Shine, Give, Share" on Nov. 30. The highlight of the day? The first dog Bo’s omnipresence throughout the building, from Bos made of recycled plastic bags to buttons, licorice, and marshmallows — even one in topiary form.

Click here for the White House Holiday Traditions Slideshow.

Themed holiday decorations are just one of many long-standing White House holiday traditions. First lady Jackie Kennedy started the tradition in 1961, with the theme of “The Nutcracker Suite.” Since then, each first lady has added their own touch through their chosen theme.

The Christmas tree has been a focal point of the White House for every presidential family since 1889. The first lady took receipt of this year’s tree, delivered by horse and carriage, the day after Thanksgiving. At around 20 feet tall, the tree isn’t small, either — last year, 97 decorators volunteered to help put the 18-foot tall Douglas fir up. With the help of ladders and scaffolding, they managed to do it in four days, capturing the whole process on time-lapse video, below.

Decorations aside, the real feat 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 more than 350 pounds (complete with electrical wiring) — for the 100,000 some odd guests who come through in the month of December. According to CBS News, “Christmas at the White House is the single most mentally and physically challenging thing you can do,” former White House chef Walter Scheib has said. In 2006, that meant cookie ornaments and a tree made of pecan sandies. 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.

Click here to see the White House Holiday Traditions Slideshow.


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