President Millard Fillmore and First Ladies Abigail and Caroline 1850-1853
Millard Fillmore spent several Christmas seasons in Washington D.C. but only three as President of the United States. President Fillmore and his wife, Abigail Powers, had grown accustomed to spending the Christmas holidays away from their children due to Millard’s political career. Millard Fillmore and his wife would take great care in selecting Christmas gifts to send home to their children, who were attending school in New York. Mr. Fillmore was especially apt to select books to send to the children.
Mrs. Fillmore had grown ill by the time Mr. Fillmore took over the presidency after the death of Zachary Taylor. President Fillmore’s daughter, Mary Abigail Fillmore, took over the First Lady’s White House hostess duties including all duties associated with the White House Christmas celebrations. The President’s daughter was an accomplished musician and would perform at several White House functions. Since the first Christmas cards were believed to be designed and printed in London, England just 10 years prior to the end of Millard Fillmore’s tenure as president, it is doubtful it ever occurred to President Fillmore or his wife to send White House Christmas cards.President Fillmore’s wife would not live to see another Christmas after leaving the White House. Mrs. Fillmore had chronic health issues but insisted on standing by her husband’s side as his successor, Franklin Pierce, was sworn in. There was a raw northeast wind in the air and it snowed over the crowd. She returned to the Willard Hotel – chilled – and developed pneumonia. She died there on March 30, 1853.
President Fillmore’s daughter, Mary Abigail Fillmore, died of cholera a little over a year after her mother’s death. President Fillmore decided to go abroad and tour Europe, spending at least one Christmas season overseas.
President Franklin Pierce and First Lady Jane 1853-1857
Franklin Pierce served for one term as the 14th President of the United States just prior to the Civil War. Pierce’s four years in the White House was marked by a great deal of political turbulence and it is assumed that the thought of sending Christmas greetings would be buried under the weight of his responsibilities.
President Pierce may not have sent White House Christmas Cards, but he did have a Christmas tree put up in the White House. He is widely hailed as having the first White House Christmas tree, however, the first official “National Christmas Tree” was lit in 1923 by President Calvin Coolidge on the section of the White House lawn known as the Ellipse. Pierce had the Christmas tree decorated in 1856 for a group of Washington Sunday School children. The practice of putting up a Christmas tree was brought to the United States by German immigrants and was in vogue during the mid 1800s. Prior to this, decorations consisted of holly and pine cones and sprigs of green.The White House was much more festive for this Christmas celebration, and carolers sang Hark the Herald Angels Sing to the children. There isn’t a written description of the festivities, but what would Christmas be without a treat, so they may have served refreshments
In 1997 the White House Historical Society issued its annual Christmas ornament – depicting the White House as it looked during the presidency of Franklin Pierce. This special ornament features the White House lawn as people are strolling on the grounds in a casual fashion. It appears to be a peaceful scene, although President Pierce’s term in office was not at all peaceful.
President James Buchanan 1857-1861
Few leaders have faced the harrowing dilemma our 15th President, James Buchanan, suffered during the Christmas season of 1860. In the most polarizing of elections, the nation had just voted to have Abraham Lincoln succeed him. Numerous southern states saw Lincoln’s election as the death knell for slavery, the growing irrelevance of their role in the federal government and direction of the nation, and an end to the southern way of life. Led by South Carolina, seven (and later 11) of these disaffected commonwealths had begun the process of drawing up Articles of Secession as Buchanan, a man with southern sympathies but a protector of the Union first, scrambled to find a solution to the exploding crisis. Surely, the President had no time or inclination to send White House Christmas cards during that bleak winter.President Buchanan underestimated the depth of the antipathy of feelings between northern abolitionist forces and the southern pro-slavery ranks. By the 1860 election, President Buchanan’s unpopularity made it a foregone conclusion that he would not be re-nominated. The party split between the more moderate northern branch and the more fervently pro-slavery southern wing and nominated two different candidates for the presidency. This ensured the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln followed by the secession of the deep-South states and ultimately, the Civil War. Buchanan retired to his Wheatland estate near Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he would spend his last seven Christmases. He supported Lincoln during the war, as he felt that saving the Union was the paramount issue.
President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary 1861-1865
Christmas is not a topic that one often associates with our Civil War president. During the first Christmas of the war, Mrs. Lincoln arranged flowers, read books, helped serve meals, talked with the staff, and cared for the wounded at Campbell’s and Douglas hospitals. She personally raised a thousand dollars for Christmas dinners and donated a similar amount for oranges and lemons when she heard that there was a threat of scurvy.
During the Christmas season of 1863, the Lincolns son, Tad, had accompanied his father on hospital visits and noticed the loneliness of the wounded soldiers. Deeply moved, the boy asked his father if he could send books and clothing to these men. The President agreed and packages signed “From Tad Lincoln” were sent to area hospitals that Christmas.
One Christmas Tad Lincoln befriended the turkey that was to become Christmas dinner. He interrupted a cabinet meeting to plead with his father to spare the bird. The President obliged by writing a formal pardon for the turkey named Jack!It was during the Civil War that Harper’s Weekly illustrator/cartoonist Thomas Nast became a contributor to the Union’s war effort. Nast, who became known for his Christmas drawings and was generally credited with depicting Santa Claus as we know him today, had initially worked for Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election creating campaign posters. Nast’s ability to stunningly depict Civil War battles and scenes prompted Lincoln to remark that Nast was “our best recruiting sergeant. His emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism.”
There is no evidence that the Lincoln family ever decorated a Christmas tree during their years in the White House.
What also was special at Christmastime was the serving of special foods for dinner: turkey, venison, biscuits, chicken salad, fruit, cake, and eggnog. A famous story involved son, Tad, who during one particular holiday season, pleaded with his father to not have a certain turkey (named Jack) killed for Christmas dinner because Tad considered Jack his pet. The President wrote a formal pardon, saving the life of the turkey. The Lincolns never did have a Christmas tree at the White House, although a short walk away there was a tree they may have gone to see when they attended services at the First Presbyterian Church.In the years following Lincoln’s death, there were several Christmas-related illustrations done by Thomas Nast showing the Lincoln family, which proved to be very popular. One showed the family gathered around son, Tad, who was seated in a chair opening Christmas presents in 1861. Another was of Tad on Lincoln’s shoulders, along with Willie, peering into a toy store, seemingly mesmerized by all the Christmas goodies they saw through the window. Yet another showed Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, circa 1860, hanging a wreath on their front door at their home in Springfield, Illinois. To many, Abraham Lincoln’s death at the hands of an assassin made him a martyr. Ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment occurred less than eight months after his death and made the abolishment of slavery official – an important part of his legacy, as is the fact that he was successful in saving the Union. Historians and admirers have always mentioned that the moniker, “Honest Abe,” had been associated with Lincoln as far back as his days as a lawyer because he embodied the attributes of integrity, respect, and freedom for others no matter what their station in life.
As a result of his accomplishments and moral attributes for which Abraham Lincoln is known, historians agree that he should be considered among the best – if not the best – President of the United States our country has known.
President Andrew Johnson and First Lady Elizabeth 1865-1869
Andrew Johnson originally of Tennessee, serving as Vice President of the United States at the end of the Civil War, was thrust into the presidency upon the assassination of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. There is no information concerning how the Johnson family celebrated the Christmas holiday while he served in the nation’s highest office or whether they exchanged White House Christmas cards during his term as president.
Aside from having been born four days after Christmas on December 29, 1808, the only other Christmas-related occurrence associated directly with Andrew Johnson was one of his last – and yet a most significant of acts – when on Christmas Day in 1868, he granted unconditional and full amnesty to any and all former Confederates charged with treason, specifically the former President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and former Confederate Vice President, Andrew Stephens. The proclamation read, in part:
During his presidency, Johnson often took his family on carriage rides. A special Christmas ornament with a 24kt. gold finish in several colors was commissioned in 2001 and features a reproduction of the type of carriage used by the family during Christmas of 1867. Although there is no written descriptions concerning Christmas celebrations in the White House, President Johnson is credited with being the first to have an Easter Egg Roll at the White House. Also, he declared a Thanksgiving holiday for December 7th in 1865 and was the first President to give government employees that day off, making Thanksgiving a legal holiday.
…the President of the United States…do hereby proclaim and declare unconditionally and without reservation, to all and every person who, directly or indirectly, participated in the late insurrection or rebellion a full pardon and amnesty for the offense of treason against the United States…with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution…
Although it has been substantiated that the first “official” White House Christmas tree was displayed in 1853 during the reign of President Franklin Pierce, having a tree during the Christmas season did not become a yearly staple for presidents until the Kennedy administration.Although many different ornaments most certainly have been displayed on those indoor trees over the many years, it was not until 2007 that two artists from Greeneville designed and painted a special Christmas ornament featuring Johnson’s likeness, which was to be displayed on the White House Christmas tree. The artists, who were commissioned by the Andrew Johnson Historic Site, were sent the large, ostrich-sized white egg by the White House. For the front, they found a clear photograph of Johnson and superimposed a sepia-toned print of the picture over a mountain scene they had drawn, while the back showed President Johnson’s monument from the national cemetery where he and his family are buried. The ornament graced the White House tree at the end of that year to honor the beginning of the bicentennial of Andrew Johnson’s birthday.
President Ulysses S. Grant and First Lady Julia 1869-1877
Although there is no information about White House Christmas cards sent out by Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States, and his wife, Julia, the Grant name has been connected with two important events involving Christmas itself. During his first presidential term in 1870, the former General in Chief of the Union Army signed into law the bill that had been introduced by Illinois Congressman Burton Chuancey Cook, making Christmas a legal holiday. The bill also declared that New Year’s Day, the 4th of July, and Thanksgiving Day would also be national holidays.The other significant Christmas-related event involving Ulysses S. Grant was the naming in 1867 of a giant sequoia tree as the General Grant Tree (this took place two years after the end of the Civil War and two years before Grant was elected president). Located in California southeast of Yosemite National Park, in what is now called Kings Canyon National Park, the approximately 2,000-year-old tree today measures almost 270 feet high, 40 feet across its base with a circumference of 108 feet. In 1926 President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the huge sequoia the “Nation’s Christmas Tree.”
Three decades later, President Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed the tree to be a national shrine and a living memorial to those who gave their lives serving the United States. Each Christmas, a wreath is laid at the tree’s base to honor the United States’ fallen war heroes.
There is no information available concerning how the Grant family may have celebrated the Christmas holiday. Exchanging White House Christmas cards was not yet a standard practice and there is no mention of a White House Christmas tree being displayed in the executive mansion.In 1881, former President Grant and his family moved to New York City where they had purchased a home. For income, the Grants lived off of money friends had raised for them. Unfortunately, the family’s entire portfolio was invested in a banking partnership whose funds were swindled, causing the Grants to be (as they were 25 years before) without financial resources. In addition to the family’s dire financial plight, it was also around this time when Grant found out that he was suffering from throat cancer. To compound the family’s problems, on Christmas Eve in 1883, the former president injured his hip after slipping on a sidewalk that was covered with ice. He quickly contracted pneumonia and suffered from boils and bedsores during his confinement.
In 1885, Congress voted to reinstate Grant’s full general ranking along with providing a decent salary. While terminally ill, Grant had been moved to Mount McGregor in Saratoga County, New York for health reasons, and this was where he spent his last days working on his memoirs, writing his recollections in longhand since he was unable to speak because of the cancer which was killing him. The well-received publication earned the family more than $450,000.
President Rutherford B. Hayes and First Lady Lucy 1877-1881
President Rutherford B. Hayes was well known for his prolific letter writing before, during, and after he was president. There are many letters that were preserved from his four years spent in the White House. Although Hayes wrote a great deal during his presidency there is no indication whether or not he sent White House Christmas cards. Since the first known Christmas cards offered for sale in America date back to 1875, we can presume that President Hayes did not send out Christmas cards during his stay in the White House.
President Hayes kept a diary from the age of 12 through his death at age 70. Many of his White House moments have been recorded in these journal entries. While it’s been established that Hayes did not send out White House Christmas cards, he did send out letters during the holiday season to his uncle describing how he spent Christmases in the White House. In 1877 he wrote in his diary:
President Hayes had eight children – one girl and seven boys. Hayes was quite staunch in his love and affection for his children often mentioning them with humor in his diary. Christmas of 1880 was spent in the White House library with his children, some friends, and the servants. The Christmas presents were kept in the Red Room and his children would run to get one gaily wrapped present at a time and bring them to the President, who would then take a great deal of time distributing the gifts to the proper recipients. All parties present shared in the fun and received at least a five dollar gold piece from President Hayes.
December 26, 1887 – Our visit to New York, 21st and 24th, was a most happy one. The Union League reception, 22nd, the American Museum of Natural History opening, and the New England dinner, all enjoyable. Christmas, the presents to the children made them and their parents equally happy.
While serving as United States President, Hayes spent four Christmases in the White House, and there is evidence that he received several Christmas cards. President Richard Nixon’s wife Pat set up a Christmas display in the East Wing corridor that included three Christmas cards received by President Hayes during his term and a large doll house made for Fanny Hayes by White House carpenters, given to her during her first Christmas in the White House.During his presidency, Hayes asked his wife to not serve wine or liquor in the White House. Many people believe that Lucy Hayes had a lot to do with that and she was dubbed “Lemonade Lucy,” but in reality, Lucy never asked her husband to practice abstinence, but President Hayes felt that there was no place in politics for alcohol and he wanted to set a good example. Although the lack of alcoholic beverages was his decision he once told a reporter, “I don’t know how much influence Mrs. Hayes has on Congress, but she has great influence with me.” Neither President Hayes nor his wife endorsed the temperance league, but rather practiced in the White House the same habits as they practiced at home in Ohio. Christmas sing-a-longs, lemonade refreshments, and casual hospitality were a natural way of life for the Hayes family – both in and out of the White House.
President James A. Garfield and First Lady Lucretia 1881-1881
James A. Garfield was born into humble circumstances on November 19, 1831 in Moreland Hills, Ohio. His father passed away before his second Christmas and young James was raised by his mother, brother, and uncle. As a teenager, he drove canal boat teams to earn money and probably never imagined that one day he would be in a position to send White House Christmas cards. Garfield attended Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College) in Ohio. He went on to Williams College in Massachusetts, where he was known as an exceptional student, and graduated in 1856. After a brief stint as a preacher, he became a professor and returned to his former school in Ohio and was named President of the Institute within a year. He married his wife, Lucretia, in 1858 and the couple would have seven children. Garfield entered politics and was elected to the Ohio state senate in 1859.
Garfield spent Christmas 1880 sequestered at his Lawnfield Estate in Mentor, Ohio, poring over the inaugural addresses of all previous presidents, but he did not finish writing his own speech until just before the inauguration. In it, he spoke of the triumph of Constitutional law in the Civil War and he described the elevation of the African American race from slavery to citizenship as “the most important political change… since the adoption of the Constitution.”On the morning of July 2, 1881, Garfield traveled to the Washington train station. He planned to join his wife on vacation at the New Jersey shore, but was shot in the back by Charles Guiteau, a deranged lawyer who had unsuccessfully sought Garfield’s appointment to a European ambassadorship. The bullet lodged near the President’s spine. Doctors tried for weeks to locate it, prodding the President’s wound with unsterilized instruments and fingers. In early September, after a series of infections, he was moved to the seaside town of Long Branch, New Jersey. He died from an internal hemorrhage on September 19. Most historians agree that with medical practices observed just 20 or 25 years later, Garfield’s injury would not have proved fatal.
President Chester A. Arthur and First Lady Ellen 1881-1885
Chester Alan Arthur was administered the oath of office as the 21st President of the United States on September 20, 1881, just before the Christmas season and shortly after the assassination of President James Garfield. When Garfield won the nomination for president, several people were asked and refused the nomination for Vice President. Going against his mentor’s advice Chester Arthur accepted the nomination of Vice President stating, “This is a higher honor than I have ever dreamt of attaining. I shall accept!” (not realizing he would shortly take over the presidency).Chester Arthur’s last Presidential Christmas was celebrated in the White House. He enjoyed a Christmas drink with Senator Wade Hampton of South Carolina before calling for the family sleigh so he could accompany his son on a long drive. The President and his family enjoyed a Christmas dinner at the home of the Secretary of State. He received many Christmas gifts including a hammered silver button hook and boxes of premium cigars. Each of the White House servants was given a shiny five-dollar gold piece. Just a few days after the first family’s Christmas celebration, President Arthur’s daughter, Ellen “Nellie”, served as a waitress at a Christmas dinner for poor children and encouraged her father’s support of the charity.
President Grover Cleveland and First Lady Francis 1885-1889, 1893-1897
When Grover Cleveland first became President in 1885, he hardly stopped working long enough to celebrate anything, let alone the Christmas holidays. Then in 1886, the 50-year-old Cleveland married his deceased law partner’s daughter, 22-year-old Frances Folsom and between terms, their first child, “Baby Ruth,” was born. We can imagine that the President’s life was never the same from that point on!
Although there was no Christmas tree during the first Cleveland administration, when daughters Ruth, Esther, and Marion were born, this quickly changed. In 1895, a tree was set up, decorated with electric lights, gold angels with spreading wings, gold and silver sleds, tops of every description, and lots of tinsel. Under the tree was a miniature White House and a doll house for Esther, who was the only daughter of a President to be born in the White House.Mrs. Cleveland’s main Christmas activity, rather than entertaining and decorating, was her work with the Christmas Club of Washington to provide food, clothing, and toys to poor children in the D.C. area. She took the time to wrap and distribute gifts to the children and sat with them for a Punch and Judy show. Although Christmas Club charities in Washington date back to the 1820’s, no previous first lady had taken as prominent a role in these activities as Frances Cleveland, who helped set a tradition of good works carried on by Lou Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt and many other First Ladies.
President Benjamin Harrison and First Lady Caroline and Mary 1889-1893
While it is reported that President Franklin Pierce was the first to decorate a White House Christmas tree, the tradition was not begun in earnest and announced to the public until the presidency of Benjamin Harrison over four decades later. On the morning of December 25, 1889, the Harrison family gathered in the second-floor Oval Room of the White House (later called the Blue Room) and stood around a tree decorated with glass ornaments, toy soldiers, and lit candles.
President Harrison’s young grandchildren, Benjamin and Mary McKee, were the leading recipients of gifts, which filled tables and stockings hung from the mantel. Besides the presents, candy and nuts were distributed to family and staff, and the President distributed turkeys and gloves to his employees. While there is no mention of White House Christmas Cards being exchanged, Harrison did receive a silver dollar-shaped picture holder from his daughter, Mary Scott “Mamie” Harrison McKee. First Lady Caroline Harrison, an artist, was instrumental in planning how the tree would be adorned. The Harrisons played an essential role in setting the stage for a tradition which has lasted to the present day, as the First Family’s Christmas tree is still set up in the same location in the White House chosen by the 23rd President of the United States.The Harrisons were a religious clan and were known for throwing lavish, well-attended feasts at the White House in observance of the Christmas holiday. The following is the menu from their 1890 holiday celebration: to start they had Blue Point Oysters on the half shell and Consommé Royal; the main portion consisted of Bouchées a la Reine (pastries filled with a sweetbread and béchamel mixture), turkey, cranberry jelly, potatoes Duchesse, stewed celery, terrapin a la Maryland, salad with plain dressing, mince pie, and American plum pudding; and for dessert they had ice cream tutti-fruiti, lady fingers, macaroons, Carlsbad Wafers, and an assortment of fruit. Harrison’s Christmas parties are credited with popularizing the Carlsbad Wafers, a German-Czech creation which remains popular to this day, particularly in the California wine country. He retired to his law practice in Indiana, and after spending four Christmases alone, married his second wife, Mary Lord Dimmick, in 1896. The couple had Harrison’s third child, a daughter named Elizabeth, in 1897. He returned to the spotlight briefly to serve as chief counsel to Venezuela in a border dispute with Great Britain before dying of pneumonia at his home in Indianapolis in 1901. Harrison would be the last Civil War general to serve as President.
President William McKinley and First Lady Ida 1897-1901
President William McKinley celebrated four Christmas Seasons in the White House but would not make it to see the first Christmas of his second term in office. McKinley met his untimely death just before the Christmas Season in 1901, when he was assassinated by Leon Frank Czolgosz on September 6 of that year.
President McKinley and wife Ida Saxton celebrated Christmas of 1898 in the White House. The manner in which the First Family celebrated Christmas was mostly dictated by Mrs. McKinley’s health at the time. This was the second year of President McKinley’s first term, and he and the First Lady decided to spend the holidays at home in the White House. Just prior to Christmas, Mrs. McKinley was feeling strong enough to make a special trip to New York to purchase gifts for the White House servants and attachés. Several of the executive couple’s friends and associates from Ohio arrived to spend Christmas in Washington. When attending church services, their minister spoke of God’s Christmas gift of freedom to an oppressed people. Later in the afternoon the couple took advantage of the pleasant but brisk weather they were experiencing and went for a drive.Many gifts arrived for the President and his wife during the Christmas Season in 1899 including the fattest, juiciest turkey from Rhode Island, which had been sent to the White House compliments of the raiser. Mrs. McKinley was quite ill during Christmas, preventing her from participating in the same celebrations as the year before. The President and First Lady invited their nieces to the White House to celebrate Christmas with them along with a few other family members, making the gathering quite small by White House standards. There is no record of any White House Christmas cards being sent during the years William McKinley was in office, but Mrs. McKinley was a creative First Lady who would have surely added a unique and personal touch to any Christmas cards sent. Being so ill, Mrs. McKinley was unable to travel to New York or anywhere else to purchase gifts for the White House staff. Instead, she crafted unique and thoughtful gifts for all the unmarried attachés showing her flair for creativity. It was customary for all married staff members to receive a turkey for the holidays.
A special note of thanks goes to our friends at White House Christmas Cards, for allowing us to use some of their outstanding research material as part of this presentation. If you are interested in a more in-depth study of Christmas in the White House, we highly recommend you visit their site.