President George Washington and First Lady Martha 1789-1797
George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. There was no White House at that time so the Washington’s lived in houses that were “borrowed” as Presidential homes, first in New York City and later in Philadelphia.
At a time when Christmas was still quite controversial in a new nation, at the time Martha Washington’s holiday receptions were stiff and regal affairs, quite befitting the dignity of the office of President of the United States and invitations were much desired by the local gentry. A Christmas party was given by the Washington’s for members of Congress on Christmas Day, 1795 at which a bountiful feast was served to the guests, all men with the exception of the First Lady.Although not everyone celebrated Christmas in the colonies, the festivities at Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia would start at daybreak with a Christmas fox hunt. It was followed by a hearty mid-day feast that included “Christmas pie,” dancing, music, and visiting that sometimes did not end for a solid week. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the Christmas of 1777, spent by General Washington and his troops at Valley Forge where dinner was little more than cabbage, turnips, and potatoes.
Some documents show that Christmas at Mt. Vernon were quite a celebration. The traditional feast varied from household to household (depending on how wealthy the family was) but generally, consisted of wines, rum punches, hams, beef, goose, turkey, oysters, mincemeat pies, and various other treats. The season was considered a grown-up celebration, but presents would generally be given to children. Irena Chalmers notes that in 1759, that George Washington gave the following presents to his children: a bird on Bellows; a Cuckoo; a Turnabout Parrot; a Grocers Shop; an Aviary; a Prussian Dragoon; a Man Smoking; a Tunbridge Tea Set; 3 Neat Books, a Tea Chest. A straw parchment box with a glass and a neat dressed wax baby.
President John Adams and First Lady Abigale 1797-1801
When the second President of the United States, John Adams, moved into what would come to be known as the White House, the residence was cold, damp, and drafty. Sitting at the edge of a dreary swamp, the First Family had to keep 13 fireplaces lit in an effort to stay comfortable. It is in this setting that the cantankerous president held the first ever White House Christmas party in honor of his granddaughter, Susanna. It could be said that the invitations sent for this party were the very first White House Christmas cards, though in those early days, the building was referred to as the President’s Palace, Presidential Mansion, or President’s House.The affair was planned in large part by the vivacious First Lady, Abigail Adams, and was considered a great success. A small orchestra played festive music in a grand ballroom adorned with seasonal flora. After dinner, cakes and punch were served while the staff and guests caroled and played games. The most amusing incident of the evening occurred when one of the young guests accidentally broke one of the First Granddaughter’s new doll dishes. Enraged, the young guest of honor promptly bit the nose off of one of the offending friend’s dolls. The amused president had to intervene to make sure the incident didn’t turn any uglier. With the death of George Washington shortly before Christmas of 1799, President Adam’s Federalist Party was weakened. Due in part to the unpopularity of the Alien and Sedition Acts, he narrowly lost his re-election bid to Thomas Jefferson, 65 to 73 in the Electoral College. Adams retired to a life of farming at Peacefield, his home near Quincy, Massachusetts. In 1812, Adams reconciled with Thomas Jefferson. He sent a brief note to Jefferson, which resulted in a resumption of their friendship and began an ongoing correspondence that lasted the rest of their lives.
President Thomas Jefferson 1801-1809
Since Christmas did not become a national holiday until 1870 during the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, it is not surprising that the exchanging of White House Christmas cards was not a yearly presidential custom during the very early history of our country. For most of our earlier presidents, there is very little documented information regarding Christmas celebrations or traditions they or their families may have practiced. However, whether it is because he was a prolific letter-writer or that scholars have accumulated a wealth of information on his life from painstaking research, there is more information describing Christmas celebrations of our third president, Thomas Jefferson, than any of our other Founding Fathers who became president. This information reflects both the time Jefferson spent as president in the White House and at his famous Virginia home and plantation, Monticello.As president in 1805, six of his grandchildren and 100 of their friends – invited by Secretary of State James Madison’s wife, Dolley, who acted as official hostess – made for a tremendously enjoyable holiday party at which Jefferson played the violin for the dancing children. Christmas celebrations at the Jefferson White House were festive affairs where delicacies and local American foods were served. Joyful Christmas partying continued at Monticello in 1809 following the end of the Jefferson presidency earlier that year. Celebrations at Jefferson’s beautiful home included social intercourse amongst friends and relatives and the serving of a Christmas favorite, mince pies. The hanging of Christmas stockings and the decorating of evergreen trees had not yet become the norm like those traditions are today. In all that he did, Jefferson tried to maintain his political and moral philosophy, not only for the country itself, but also for America’s citizens. He believed that each person has “certain inalienable rights,” which could not be taken away whether a government existed or not. He also believed in equality for all people and was a proponent of states’ rights.
Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826 along with fellow Founding Father and 2nd President, John Adams). Ironically, this date was also the 50th anniversary of the adoption of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, the document which historians readily believe is perhaps the most important document in our country’s history.
President James Madison 1809-1817
President James Monroe and First Lady Elizabeth 1817-1825
Monroe, a Virginian who is considered the last of the United States’ Founding Fathers, was, however, one of the participants in what may be the most famous Christmas in our nation’s history.
It was on Christmas in 1776 that Monroe, a lieutenant in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, was wounded in the shoulder serving with General George Washington in the surprise attack against the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton in New Jersey. In fact, in the famous 1851 painting by German-American artist Emanuel Leutze, it is the young James Monroe who is shown holding the flag as Washington leads his men into battle as their boat crosses the Delaware River from Pennsylvania into New Jersey. Had the exchanging of Christmas cards been a custom back in Colonial times, certainly none would have been exchanged between the pro-British Hessians and the revolution-minded colonists!In modern times, at the James Monroe Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia, not only is there an annual exhibition showcasing what the Monroe home would have looked like at Christmastime, but other festivities include fireworks, a display of Christmas dishes such as candied fruits and plum pudding, and decorations which include mistletoe, ivy, and holly.
In 1831 James Monroe died from tuberculosis and heart failure one year later on the 4th of July – the third president of the first five in our country’s history to pass away on the date of the birth of our nation.
President John Quincy Adams and First Lady Louisa 1825-1829
President John Quincy Adams spent four Christmases in the White House and yet there is very little written about his Christmas celebrations, if indeed there were any. He was a very prolific writer and there is certainly the possibility that he sent Christmas messages from the White House. Since Christmas cards were not in vogue until after the 1850s, we can be sure that President John Quincy Adams did not send out White House Christmas cards.President and Mrs. Adams lived vastly separate lives while in the White House. President Adams developed his love for gardening and Louisa raised silk worms. Perhaps, her intention was to make Christmas presents with the silk. Being the only foreign born first lady, Louisa had some bad publicity stirred up by opponents of her husband. Their son John was the only son of a president to be married in the White House on February 25, 1828. Louisa Adams was the first to allow visitors to tour the White House with the intention of proving that the First Family was not living in the lap of luxury at the expense of the taxpayers.
President Andrew Jackson and First Lady Rachel 1829-1837
During the 1835 Christmas season, a number of young relatives occupied the White House of President Andrew Jackson. His wife’s niece, her four children and the two children of his adopted son, Andrew Jackson, Jr., all made their residence in the executive mansion. The President and his family sent invitations, White House Christmas cards, of sorts, to the local children inviting them to an event in the East Room on Christmas Day.
On Christmas Eve, President Jackson and the White House children embarked upon a carriage ride, delivering gifts to former First Lady Dolly Madison and Vice President Martin Van Buren. As they rode, one of the children asked the President if he thought Santa would visit the White House. Mr. Jackson replied that they would have to wait and see and told the children of a boy he once knew who had never heard of Christmas or Santa Claus and who had never owned a single toy. The boy, he told them, never knew his father and then his mother died. After her death, he had no friends and no place to live. Jackson and the children then visited an orphanage and delivered the remaining gifts in the carriage to its residents. Years later, one of the children, Mary Donelson, realized that the boy the president spoke of had been Jackson himself.That night, the President encouraged the children to hang their Christmas stockings in his bedroom and even allowed himself to be talked into hanging his own stocking for the first time in his 68 years. On Christmas morning, the children raced into Jackson’s chamber to see what St. Nick had left. They each received a silver quarter, candy, nuts, cake, and fruit in addition to a small toy. The President received slippers, a corncob pipe, and a tobacco bag.
Later that day, the children who had received the White House Christmas card invitations arrived at the residence and found the East Room decorated with mistletoe and other seasonal foliage. They participated in song, games and danced throughout the afternoon. At dinnertime, the youngsters filed into the dining room two-by-two as the band played “The President’s March.” The French chef had created a remarkable feast including winter scenes filled with animals carved out of icing and confectionery sugar. Also featured were cakes shaped like apples, pears, and corn. In the center, there was a large pyramid of cotton “snowballs” – frosted creations which exploded when struck in a certain way.After dinner, the children were allowed to participate in a wild snowball fight. While some of the adults feared that the festivities were getting out of hand, President Jackson cheered them on, taking great pleasure in their youthful enthusiasm.
After two terms, Jackson retired to his estate, the Hermitage, outside Nashville, Tennessee. He remained a force in national politics and was instrumental in the elections of Democrats Martin Van Buren in 1836 and James K. Polk in 1844. He died from tuberculosis in 1845 at the age of 78.
President Martin Van Buren 1837-1841
President William Henry Harrison and First Lady Anna 1841-1841
William Henry Harrison was not in the White House long enough to enjoy a Christmas season, serving only one month before he died. It is very clear that he did not send White House Christmas cards. The first known Christmas cards sold in the United States weren’t until 1843, two years after Harrison’s election in 1841. The custom of sending White House Christmas cards began officially with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, although many prior presidents sent Christmas cards to family and friends.
President William Henry Harrison was portrayed in a 1991 Christmas ornament issued by the White House Historical Society. He was depicted atop a white charger in full military regalia. Harrison spent many years on the Northwest Frontier (as it was known in his time) probably spending Christmas with family or his troops. There is little written about President Harrison’s Christmas celebrations prior to his short tenure in the White House. There is little doubt that he would have followed his Episcopalian beliefs in any Christmas observances.At the age of 67, William Henry Harrison became the oldest man elected as President of the United States until Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. He won on the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” on the Whig ticket. The Harrison’s must have had a busy Christmas season in 1840 preparing to move to the White House.
President Harrison gave the longest inauguration speech in history and had the shortest term. He was the first president to die in office. He served only 30 days before dying of pneumonia. His wife, Anna, never had a chance to be First Lady, but was given a widow’s pension of $25,000 and lifetime franking privilege. President William Henry Harrison was buried in Ohio and the Whig party died with him.
President John Tyler and First Ladies Lettitia and Julia 1841-1845
There were probably no White House Christmas cards sent at the beginning of the Tyler administration. There is no information whatsoever as to whether the Tyler family followed that present-day Christmas tradition, but it was not until 1843 – during the middle of the Tyler administration – that the first commercial Christmas cards were even commissioned. That card was quite controversial as it showed a family and their young child partaking of some wine drinking, a picture of which would have been scandalous had the Tyler’s sent out something similar as their White House Christmas cards. Although Christmas cards were not exchanged, it is known that President Tyler enjoyed hosting Christmas parties for young children.
Married to wife Letitia since 1813, by 1839 she had become an invalid. After her husband acceded to the presidency, a daughter-in-law, Priscilla Cooper, became the President’s official hostess since the First Lady was not able to perform her official duties. On September 10, 1842, after a lengthy illness, Letitia died.During the following year, the widower Tyler had taken notice of an outgoing and quite beautiful young woman named Julia Gardiner, daughter of Senator Daniel Gardiner of New York, whose family usually spent the winter social season in Washington. It was a special White House Christmas that followed as the President hosted a special Christmas Eve gathering of the Tyler and the Gardiner families. Their friendship turned into love in the succeeding months and the two were married on June 26, 1844.
Serving as First Lady for only a little more than eight months until the end of her husband’s term, Julia made quite an impact during her short reign. At the age of 24 and 30 years younger than her husband, she was the youngest woman to serve as First Lady. Bringing gaiety and a youthful feel to the White House, she made sure that the song “Hail to the Chief” was played at state occasions and she also introduced the Waltz and Polka to White House dance festivities. The one Christmas Julia spent as White House hostess must have been one of joy and celebration.
President James K. Polk and First Lady Sarah 1845-1849
James K. Polk is considered by historians to be the last strong pre-Civil War president. In his one term, he nearly doubled the territory of the United States, strengthened the economic power of the federal government, promoted trade, and bolstered the power of the chief executive. While nearly all give him credit for greatly strengthening the nation, he is often criticized for his lack of a forward-looking vision on the issue of slavery.
Polk accomplished the first two fiscal goals before the middle of his term. These policies were popular in the South and West, but not in Pennsylvania and much of the northeast. His first foreign policy victory came four days after Christmas of 1845, when Texas was admitted to the Union as the 28th state. This angered Mexico, which viewed the area as its own breakaway province. Avoiding a costly war, Polk reached an agreement with Great Britain to recognize the 49th parallel as the border between British Canada and the U.S., acquiring slightly more than half of the Oregon territory in the process. Acquisition of California and New Mexico would prove more difficult as the Mexican government refused Polk’s $20-30 million offer for the territories and by the spring of 1846, the nations would find themselves at war.The country expanded again when Iowa gained statehood three days after Christmas. Another important event in American history occurred about a week after the holiday season when The Philanthropist became The National Era, and declared itself the country’s leading anti-slavery periodical. A few years later, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s highly-influential novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, would first be published as a 40-week serial in The National Era, further stoking the abolitionist movement. A few weeks before Christmas of 1847, another influential anti-slavery publication first rolled off the presses when former slave Frederick Douglass published the North Star.
President Zachary Taylor and First Lady Margaret 1849-1850
Zachary Taylor served as the 12th President of the United States before dying in office after leading our nation for only 16 months. Having spent only one Christmas in the White House (1849), there is no information as to how the President and his family celebrated the holidays or whether they exchanged White House Christmas cards with friends and acquaintances.
Indeed, First Lady Margaret Mackall Smith Taylor cared so little about performing the traditional social duties of a president’s wife that she would not have had a hand in sending out White House Christmas cards anyway. In fact, President Taylor was empathetic to his wife’s feelings of not wanting to take on the role of presidential spouse since his wife had endured a life of hardships as the spouse of a career military man. One of their daughters, newly-married Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Taylor Bliss, assumed her mother’s role at official functions and carried on in that capacity during President Taylor’s short term in office. Whether Betty Taylor Bliss had a hand in overseeing the exchange of White House Christmas cards is unknown as well.By the summer of the following year, during the final stages of the eventual agreement on the issue which became known as the Compromise of 1850, President Taylor died. At a ceremony on the 4th of July connected with the building of the Washington Monument and celebrating the 74th birthday of our country, the President drank a large amount of cold water along with cherries and iced milk to help overcome the high temperatures. After contacting gastroenteritis and suffering from a high fever that night, Taylor passed away four days later from a reported coronary thrombosis.
Taylor’s death, however, has been clouded in controversy. Being a robust man in good health, historians have surmised that perhaps because of the controversy surrounding the country at that time, certain people upset with Taylor’s stance on slavery might have had reason to do him harm. In 1991, acting on the idea that Taylor was possibly poisoned, the former president’s body was exhumed, and hair and fingernail samples were taken. After testing, it was determined that there was arsenic present but the levels were too low to consider that Taylor – rather than Abraham Lincoln – had been the first president of the United States to have been assassinated.
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.