The History of Christmas at the White House (1953-1977)

President Dwight Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie 1953-1961

As General of the United States Army and Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower easily became a well-liked man on domestic soil due to his military triumphs overseas. With the campaign slogan, “I Like Ike,” Eisenhower captured the majority vote in a landslide victory during the election of 1952, becoming the 34th President of the United States of America.

During his first Christmas in the White House in 1953, Eisenhower referred to Hallmark President Joyce C. Hall for assistance with his first official Christmas cards as the President of the U.S. An artist himself, Eisenhower painted a portrait of Abraham Lincoln while waiting for news on a Korean armistice. For inspiration, he used a photograph of Lincoln done by Alexander Gardner in 1863. Eisenhower ordered 1,100 white keepsake folders from Hallmark, each containing a reproduction of his Lincoln painting.

Signed card was sent by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie

Signed card was sent by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and First Lady Mamie

All of the folders were embossed with the official Presidential Seal. Over 500 of the reproductions were given to White House staff members at the annual Christmas party. Each folder was accompanied by a gift enclosure Christmas card imprinted with the words “Season’s Greetings” in gold.

Unlike other Presidents who distinguished political from household staff, the Eisenhower’s brought both together, more than 500 in all, for a Christmas party each year. For the White House staff, Mamie purchased gifts in area department stores, personally wrapping each one to save money.

Mamie Bangs gift enclosure Christmas cards design from 1957

Mamie Bangs gift enclosure Christmas cards design from 1957

As a gift from the American Public Golf Association, a putting green was installed on the South Lawn of the White House grounds for the President to enjoy. Echoing this gift, Hallmark designed a red and green accented “Mamie Bangs” personal gift enclosure Christmas card depicting the President and First Lady in a golf cart loaded with a Christmas tree and gifts. The First Family had 400 of these gift enclosure Christmas cards printed to send to close friends and relatives.

The 2005 Secret Service Eisenhower Executive Office Ornament

The 2005 Secret Service Eisenhower Executive Office Ornament

Christmas of 1958, Mamie pulled out all the stops in decorating the White House. She had 27 decorated trees, carols were piped into every room and greenery was wrapped around every column. Eisenhower Christmas trees in the White House were decorated with electric candle lights, glass balls and large amounts of tinsel. We have decorated our tree in pink because by 1955, “First Lady Pink” had become a bona fide color for hats, gloves, dresses, and nylon curtains as well as many other things

The Eisenhowers holding Christmas dinner in 1960

The Eisenhowers holding Christmas dinner in 1960

1960 marked Eisenhower’s last Christmas in the White House, and he wanted it to be the most memorable Christmas ever. A 75-foot Douglas fir cute from Oregon was used for the National Community Christmas Tree. The President’s Christmas message made mention of putting an end to prejudice because it puts “a blot on the brightness of America’s image.” He ended the night by saying, “For the last time as a part of this lovely ceremony, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a very, very happy New Year – all of you.

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President Eisenhower’s Christmas Wishes From Space 1958

Having launched its first space satellite in January 1958, the United States launched an unique communications satellite on December 18, 1958 for the Christmas season. The recorded voice of President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed the wishes of the American people for peace and goodwill.

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President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline 1961-1963

John F. Kennedy was a Massachusetts senator when he declared his intent to run for President for the election of 1960. Defeating Hubert Humphrey for the democratic candidacy, Kennedy ran against Republic Richard M. Nixon, who was also the Vice President of the lame duck Eisenhower administration. During the first ever televised U.S. presidential debates in late September, less than two months before the election, Kennedy trumped Nixon with his poised, relaxed demeanor and handsomely tan appearance. Nixon, who was sporting his perpetual five o’clock shadow, appeared tense on camera and was 20 pounds underweight due to a serious leg injury from which he was recovering.

1961 Christmas gift from the Kennedys to their White House staff

1961 Christmas gift from the Kennedys to their White House staff

For the Kennedys’ first Christmas in the White House in 1961, as a Christmas gift to their staff they gave a photograph of little Caroline Kennedy’s ducks in the fountain on the South Lawn with the White House in the background. Caroline, who was only five-years-old at the time, had raised the yellow-beaked white ducks from baby ducklings. After several months of trying to keep the Kennedy’s terrier, Charlie, from eating her fine-feathered friends, they were transported to safer grounds in Rock Creek Park located in northwest D.C. Before the ducks’ transfer, the President’s personal photographer, Cecil Stoughton, snapped the memorable picture of the ducks in the fountain.

First official White House Christmas cards from President Kennedy in 1961

First official White House Christmas cards from President Kennedy in 1961

For the President’s official White House Christmas cards, Hallmark produced a design similar to the ones from Eisenhower’s presidency. The 1961 White House Christmas cards featured a wide green silk screen ban on a smooth white stock accompanied by the official Presidential Seal and the sentiment “Season’s Greetings 1961” engraved in gold. The imprint read: “The President and Mrs. Kennedy wish you a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year.” Kennedy ordered 800 official Christmas cards from Hallmark. Additionally, since the President was sending Christmas cards to leaders around the world, he ordered 100 cards with a general New Year’s imprint that did not make any mention of Christmas.

Caroline Kennedy's attention as she inspects it before a party for White House employees given by her parents, December 1961

In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas tree. She decorated a tree placed in the oval Blue Room with ornamental toys, birds and angels modeled after Petr Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” ballet. Mrs. Kennedy reused these ornaments in 1962 for her childrens’ theme tree. Set up in the North Entrance, this festive tree also featured brightly wrapped packages, candy canes, gingerbread cookies and straw ornaments made by disabled or senior citizen craftspeople throughout the United States.

2004 American President Collection John F. Kennedy Ornament

2004 American President Collection John F. Kennedy Ornament

On December 20, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson lit the 75-foot Washington state Douglas fir, initiating the first Pageant of Peace during the Kennedy administration. The President could not be present at the ceremony because the Kennedy patriarch, Joseph P. Kennedy, suffered a stroke and the First Family flew down to Palm Beach, Florida to be with him. Johnson delivered the official Christmas message to the American people. He spoke of the nation’s dedication to seeking world peace, comparing that dedication to Christ’s quest for unity.

The President and Mrs. Kennedy at the White House Staff Christmas reception, 12 December 1962.

President Kennedy had almost 2,000 official White House Christmas cards produced by Hallmark. Edward Lehman, an advertising illustrator, was commissioned to sketch some renderings of the rooms for the home furnishings section of the Philadelphia Bulletin. The First Lady took a particular liking to Lehman as well as his artistry, and at his request, he was invited back to the White House to paint a 20 x 30-inch watercolor of the Red Room for the Kennedys. The President and First Lady were so impressed with Lehman’s watercolor that they had it reproduced for their 1962 Christmas gifts to their White House staff.

The official presidential Christmas cards from 1962

The official presidential Christmas cards from 1962

The official White House Christmas cards were a bit different than ones from designs of recent years past. Instead of a formal design featuring a “Season’s Greetings” sentiment and the Presidential Seal, the President’s official Christmas cards from 1962 featured a photograph taken by Cecil Stoughton of a snow-covered White House lawn. With the executive mansion in the background, the foreground depicted Mrs. Kennedy sitting with John Jr. in a one-horse open sleigh being led by Caroline’s pony, Macaroni.

John F. Kennedy and Jacquelyn Kennedy celebrate the season around the Christmas tree with their children Caroline and John Jr., the former First Lady's sister Lee Radziwill, her husband Prince Stanislaus Radziwill and their children Anthony and Ann Christine and two of their furry friends in 1962

John F. Kennedy and Jacquelyn Kennedy celebrate the season around the Christmas tree with their children Caroline and John Jr., the former First Lady's sister Lee Radziwill, her husband Prince Stanislaus Radziwill and their children Anthony and Ann Christine and two of their furry friends in 1962. Photo taken at Kennedy seniors' residence in Palm Beach

Before his untimely death, the President and First Lady decided upon a Christmas gift to give to their executive staff members, which Mrs. Kennedy also proceeded in bestowing. The gifts were mounted reproductions of the President’s favorite William Henry Bartlett engraving, The President’s House, From Washington, which hung in his office. Each reproduction was signed by the President and First Lady: “With deepest appreciation, John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy.”

The 71-foot Norway red spruce from West Virginia was lit on December 22, marking the end of the 30-day mourning period after the President’s assassination.

President Lyndon Johnson and First Lady Claudia (Lady Bird) 1963-1969

The Lyndon B. Johnson Administration began during a time of great uncertainty. In November 1963, the assassination of President Kennedy had stunned America. New First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson certainly felt a desire to help the nation heal. She chose comforting and nostalgic holiday decor during her White House years.

President Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, and Yuki, the White House dog

President Lyndon Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson, and Yuki, the White House dog

After President John F. Kennedy’s assassination a month of mourning was declared. But on the evening of Dec. 22, Johnson lit the National Christmas Tree behind the White House, and the next morning the black mourning crepe that had been draped over White House doorways and chandeliers was replaced with holly, wreaths and mistletoe. Lady Bird Johnson later wrote, “I walked the well-lit hall for the first time with the sense that life was going to go on, that we as a country were going to begin again.”

Her 1965 and 1966 Blue Room Christmas trees were decorated in an early American theme. They featured thousands of small traditional ornaments, including nuts, fruit, popcorn, dried seedpods, gingerbread cookies and wood roses from Hawaii. A paper mache angel graced the tops of the trees. For the 1967 holiday season, Mrs. Johnson added silver balls, silver stars and round mirrors to the previous years’ ornaments.

Lynda Bird Johnson Robb in front of White House Christmas tree with infant daughter.

Lynda Bird Johnson Robb in front of White House Christmas tree with infant daughter.

Lyndon and Ladybird Johnson spent four of their six presidential Christmases in Texas rather than Washington. Each year it seemed President Johnson faced a different crisis, so he liked to return home to his beloved ranch on the banks of the Pedernalas for Christmas to relax and renew his spirit. However, the holiday season in Washington begins long before December 25th and the Johnsons loved to entertain, so they didn’t miss out on Christmas in the White House. Whenever dignitaries were lucky enough to visit the the President and First Lady during the holidays, they were entertained with traditional elegance using a Christmas theme, including a decorated tree such as this one, patterned after a gingerbread theme once used by Lady Bird Johnson.

When President Johnson was in office the theme for that year was An American Past.

When President Johnson was in office the theme for that year was An American Past.

The Christmas of 1967 was special for the Johnsons because their daughter, Lynda, was married to Charles Robb in the White House on December 9th with 650 guests in attendance. The celebrating continued during Christmas week and the First Lady decided, over her husband’s objections, that they would spend that Christmas in Washington, the first time in seven years.

The Johnson’s final Christmas in the White House in 1968 was a time of reflection for them and the opportunity to say goodbye to their friends. On December 23rd, President Johnson sent Christmas greetings to the American troops in Southeast Asia, which included his two sons-in-law. In Drew Pearson’s syndicated column, he noted that Christmas at the White House for the Johnson’s was “not as gay this year as last.”

1967 Presidential Christmas cards from the Johnsons depicting the White House Christmas tree in the Blue Room

1967 Presidential Christmas cards from the Johnsons depicting the White House Christmas tree in the Blue Room

Six Christmases passed while the Johnsons lived in the White House. While the President found himself spending ever more of his energies on a war in Vietnam that would not go away, the First Lady committed herself to the beautification of America and the planting of trees. Except for their unplanned first Christmas in the Executive Mansion, all the cards and gift prints of later years were to feature trees.

These included trees planted by Presidents, trees surrounding the South Portico, trees on the South Lawn as viewed from the South Portico, and the Blue Room Christmas tree. The artist in each case was American Greetings watercolor painter Robert Laessig, with whom the Johnsons were to have a long, productive relationship. The gift prints were reproduced on textured paper 14 by 18 inches in size; to accompany each print, the First Lady enclosed a personal message penned on parchment.

On the bitter cold evening of December 16, President Johnson lit his last National Community Christmas Tree. At the touch of a button, the 74-foot Engelmann spruce from Utah lit up with 4,000 blue and green lights. During his last two years as President, Johnson’s credibility began to slip. With the Vietnam War still going strong and with no end in sight, Americans began to question their President’s motives. And with the Civil Rights movement on the rise, urban riots broke out across the nation. In his final Christmas greeting to the American people, Johnson prayed for peace in Southeast Asia and reconciliation on domestic soil. In his departing words he said, “We cannot say that we have triumphed in this endeavor. But we have begun at long last.”

President Richard Nixon and First Lady Patricia 1969-1974

After serving as Eisenhower’s veep and then losing the election of 1960 to John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon retreated from executive-level politics until 1967, when he decided to again run for President in the election of 1968. Appealing to the “Silent Majority” of socially conservative Americans as well as promising peace in Southeast Asia, Nixon beat out Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace to become the 37th President of the United States.

For President Nixon and First Lady Pat Nixon’s first Christmas in the White House in 1969, they began a tradition of gifting Presidential portraits to their staff members. That year they gave reproductions of Gilbert Stuart’s famous portrait of George Washington (the same portrait that Eisenhower used for inspiration to paint his 1954 Christmas gift print).

In 1969 Mrs. Nixon had the White House tree decorated in beautiful velvet and satin balls that represented the 50 States.

In 1969 Mrs. Nixon had the White House tree decorated in beautiful velvet and satin balls that represented the 50 States.

The 1969 “American Flower Tree” stood in the North Entrance. For its decoration, First Lady Patricia Nixon arranged for disabled workers in Florida to make velvet and satin balls featuring each state’s flower. For the 1970 Blue Room tree, she added 53 “Monroe” fans made by disabled workers in New York. Gold foil angels joined the trimmings in 1971. Mrs. Nixon took her 1972 Christmas theme from two White House collection paintings by Severin Roesen: Still Life with Fruit and Nature’s Bounty. The tree featured 3,000 pastel satin finish balls, the state flower balls and 150 gold Federal stars. A 1973 “gold” theme tree honored James Monroe, who bought gilded tableware for the White House in 1817. Gold bead strings and balls enhanced its natural beauty.

1971 White House Christmas Cards from the Nixons featuring a painting done by N.C. Wyeth in 1930

1971 White House Christmas Cards from the Nixons featuring a painting done by N.C. Wyeth in 1930

Christmas celebrations during the following years were not much better. In 1969, the train bringing the National Tree from South Dakota to Washington was twice derailed and a surprise storm on December 6th that year blew the tree down! In 1972, the Pageant of Peace was embroiled in legal controversy over the use of religious symbols. The nativity scene that had always been part of the pageant was no longer allowed. And in 1973, an air of gloom hung over the White House as the Watergate investigation continued.

At Christmas, the First Lady delighted in opening the White House for candlelight tours as well as nationally televised specials. It gave her and the President great pleasure to share with the nation at Christmas the rare and authentic acquisitions for the State Rooms. An admirer of his great predecessors, the President surprised no one when it came to holiday cards and gift prints. Each card was a rendition of the White House, which, for the last three Christmases, was an historical view by a well-known artist. Each gift print, invariably, was the portrait of a great President rendered by a celebrated portrait painter.

President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat with Frosty

President Richard Nixon and First Lady Pat with Frosty

In celebrating the 50th anniversary of the National Community Christmas Tree-lighting ceremony, President Nixon lit the tree on December 14 with the help of a Boy Scout and a Girl Scout. For the first time since 1954, a live tree was planted on the Ellipse. The 42-foot Colorado blue spruce from Pennsylvania was donated by the National Arborist Association. With a major energy crisis taking place, the White House reduced the energy consumption of lighting the tree by almost 82%. Instead of using thousands of lights, the tree was decorated primarily with garlands and balls.

In his Christmas greeting to the American people, President Nixon talked about the impending energy crisis. He said, “This year we will drive a little slower. This year the thermostats will be a little lower. This year every American perhaps will sacrifice a little, but no one will suffer.” Unfortunately for Nixon, he wouldn’t stay President for much longer to make sure no one would suffer. Due to the Watergate scandal, which resulted in Nixon’s loss of political support and near certainty of impeachment, he resigned on the evening of August 8, 1974.

President Richard Nixon Tapes: “Merry Christmas, Operator

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President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty 1974-1977

Immediately following Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, Gerald Ford was sworn in as the 38th President of the United States. He nominated former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller to fill his vacated position as Vice President, and Rockefeller was officially confirmed several months later. Perhaps one of Ford’s most controversial decisions – one that he made only weeks after taking the Presidential Oath of Office – was pardoning Nixon for all the crimes he may have committed during his presidency. Nixon’s pardon might have been the best Christmas present he ever received.

In 1976, First Lady Betty Ford looks over decorations and presents

In 1976, First Lady Betty Ford looks over decorations and presents

Handmade crafts set the theme for First Lady Betty Ford’s 1974 Blue Room tree. Emphasizing thrift and recycling, Mrs. Ford used ornaments made by Appalachian women and senior citizen groups. Swags lined with patchwork encircled the tree. She kept this quaint feel in 1975 for her “old-fashioned children’s Christmas” theme. Experts from Colonial Williamsburg adapted paper snowflakes, acorns, dried fruits, pine cones, vegetables, straw, cookies and yarn into ornaments. In 1976, Mrs. Ford expressed the “love that is the spirit of Christmas” by trimming a Blue Room tree in a variety of entirely natural ornaments made by members of the Garden Club of America.

President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty's 1974 Blue Room tree.

President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty's 1974 Blue Room tree.

In the 1970’s, the old-fashioned Christmas–turkey dinner, pumpkin pie, popcorn strings, and patchwork ornaments–was at odds with changes taking place in America. The topic of Christmas at the White House didn’t even get discussed until November because the Fords didn’t take office until late summer. Both the Kennedys and the Johnsons took their Christmas ornaments with them when they left the White House and the Nixon ornaments were not Mrs. Ford’s style. She preferred homemade or sentimental ornaments. Mrs. Ford’s idea for a Christmas tree was that it should be warm and personal. In 1974, she asked specific groups to make the tree ornaments using a patchwork theme. The homemade patchwork tree emphasized thrift and simplicity in this time of recession. Mrs. Ford encouraged Americans everywhere to make their ornaments in order to save money. She even offered a White House pamphlet on how to make patchwork Christmas tree ornaments.

Gerald and Betty Ford brought to the Executive Mansion an informality that reflected their unique style and personality. The ambiance of the Ford White House was warm and folksy, simple and low-key. Mrs. Ford described it as kind of “down-home-like.” Especially at Christmas, the First Lady was able to define her independence and leave the distinctive mark of an old-fashioned Christmas on the White House, a tradition the Ford family had always enjoyed.

Final White House Christmas cards sent by President and Mrs. Ford in 1976

Final White House Christmas cards sent by President and Mrs. Ford in 1976

The President and Mrs. Ford liked the works of George Henry Durrie, so it was no surprise that they selected another one of his paintings for the design of their third and final White House Christmas cards. The painting, entitled Going to Church, depicted a white New England church with a pointed steeple in a bucolic setting with parishioners making their way to the door. The Fords had Hallmark produce 25,000 Presidential Christmas cards, each card bounded with a blue foil border.

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.

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Back to The History of Christmas at the White House Main Page

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10 Comments

Filed under Art, Charity, Children, Christmas, Christmas at the White House, Culture, Dancing, Entertainment, History, Holidays, Music, Politics, Pop Culture, Presidents, Uncategorized, United States, US, Video/YouTube, Washington, DC, Women's Issues

10 responses to “The History of Christmas at the White House (1953-1977)

  1. Pingback: The History of Christmas at the White House 1789-2009 « 44-Diaries

  2. Pingback: Kuriosa: Jul i Vita huset! « the Campaign Dossier

  3. Your readers might be interested in a book that chronicles the history of Christmas at the White House from the Kennedys to George W, by Jennifer Pickens, published by http://www.fifeanddrumpress.com (Fife and Drum Press). There are more than 400 photos and hundreds of stories, all well-researched by the author, a political fundraiser and event planner. Her site is http://www.christmasathewhitehouse.com

  4. MitchM

    That 1962 picture of the Kennedys and dogs in front of a fireplace was taken at Kennedy seniors’ residence in Palm Beach, not at the white house.

  5. MitchM

    That 1962 taken of various Kennedys, relatives and dogs is at the Kennedy seniors’ residence in Palm Beach, not at the White House.

  6. Anonymous

    Please contact me regaring the use of the copyrighted presidential portraits in your blog.

    Bruce Collins
    Corporate VP & General Counsel, National Cable Satellite Corporation

  7. Anonymous

    Mr. Collins, I want to contact you Regaring? your proof reading. Ease up.

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