The History of the National Christmas Tree at the White House
On December 24, 1941, 15,000 Americans crowded onto the White House grounds. Pearl Harbor, the surprise attack by the Empire of Japan upon the American fleet in Hawaii, had occurred three weeks before, killing nearly 2,400 people and crippling the Pacific fleet.
Winston Churchill, the son of an American mother, had come to the capital to meet Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the man who would become his closest ally and partner. Washington, DC was already a city at war, and blacked out to protect it from enemy planes. President Roosevelt, however, insisted that the lights on the “National Christmas Tree” would be turned on. The act of lighting the tree, a Washington Post writer asserted, “affirms faith and offers hope for a world threatened with the darkness of Axis conquest.” In addition to those watching in person, millions more tuned in to a radio broadcast of the event.
FDR and the “buoyant and confident” Winston Churchill stood on the south portico overlooking the living 30-foot Oriental Spruce decorated with red, white, and blue lights. “The President touched a button, which sounded a signal in the dugout on the lawn below the great tree, where an electrician made the tree blaze with light, reflecting colors on the White House and on the faces of thousands of spectators, who burst into singing.”
First Lady Grace Coolidge helped start the tradition of the National Christmas Tree in 1923 when she gave permission to the District of Columbia Public Schools to put up a tree on the White House grounds. The tree was donated by the president’s alma mater, Middlebury College in Vermont, and was a 48-foot balsam fir. Until 1954, the tree was lighted on Christmas Eve, but that year President Dwight Eisenhower presided over the lighting of the tree on December 17.
The ceremony of lighting the National Christmas Tree has been held every year since 1923, except the war years, 1942-1944. On December 24, 1945, President Harry Truman, who had become president upon the death of FDR in 1944, stood on a bandstand on the south lawn and announced: “This is the Christmas that a war-weary world has prayed for through long and awful years. With peace come joy and gladness. The gloom of the war years fades as once more we light the National Community Christmas Tree.”
In 1963, the White House Christmas tree was not lit until December 22, 1963 to allow for a 30-day period of mourning following the assassination of President Kennedy. In 1979, only the top star was illuminated in remembrance of the hostages seized in Iran. The following year it was lit only for 417 seconds, one second for each day the captives had been held.
Indoor Christmas trees were a feature of White House holiday festivities for decades before the National Christmas Tree became a tradition. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) was the first president to erect a Christmas tree in 1856. President Grover Cleveland put up the first electric tree lights in 1895, to the delight of his small daughters.
Theodore Roosevelt forbade a Christmas tree in the White House in 1901 and 1902 for two reasons: he wanted to concentrate on the religious significance of the day and he feared the harvesting of trees was bad for the environment. His friend, conservationist Gifford Pinchot, assured him that all the nation’s Christmas trees could be planted on a few thousand acres of land, and the president should not refrain from enjoying a tree on that account. In 1903, ten-year-old Archie, the second of the three boys, secretly rigged up a Christmas tree in his closet. On Christmas morning, he brought the family there to hand out his own presents. “There was also one present each for Jack the dog, Tom Quartz the kitten, and Algonquin the pony,” the president wrote indulgently. “Archie would think no more of neglecting them than I would his brothers and sisters.” The following year, the president relented. “The decision of their parents has been received with joy by the smaller children, who are glad to know there will be a huge Christmas tree, toys, and those other things which delight the juvenile heart.” Even one of our toughest presidents, the Rough Riding TR, could not resist the pleas of his children.
This year, President Obama pushed the button to light the tree on December 3. The 9,800 spectators were selected by a new lottery system. The odds of being one of those lucky folks? 1 in 30,710.