Christmas Traditions at the White House

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From conventional holiday customs to the frolicking of First Ladies, we uncover the many yuletide festivities to have graced the presidential home

Every December, the vast neo-classical mansion that constitutes the White House is transformed into a sparkly seasonal wonderland; complete with richly adorned fir trees, lavish decorations responding to a designated theme, glittering menorahs, buckets full of eggnog, towers of delicious sweet treats and guests aplenty (around 100,000 visitors are said to pass through the hallowed doors each festive season). Over the decades, an array of Christmas-time customs have evolved, introduced by the various First Families, and today a number of boxes must be ticked before ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ can officially commence. Interestingly these all evolved in the 20th century – before then, Christmas was a strictly private affair. Here, as the Obamas’ celebrate their final Christmas in the presidential home, we explore just what the White House festivities entail, spanning time-honoured traditions and more unusual holiday high times (Nancy Reagan and Mr T, we’re looking at you).

The Tree

Christmas trees have long been at the centre of the White House celebrations, with the Christmas Pageant of Peace - which involves the switching on of the National Christmas Tree lights - being a much-anticipated annual ceremony since its inception in 1954. The first Christmas tree entered the White House in 1889, under Benjamin Harrison, and was placed in the family’s parlour – the Yellow Oval Room on the second floor, to be exact – and decorated with candles. Electricity lit up the building in 1891, and three years later the first set of electric lights were strung around the Christmas tree of then-president Grover Cleveland. In 1929, Lou Henry Hoover set in place the tradition of decorating an official tree in the ornate setting of the oval Blue Room – a task deemed that of the First Lady thereafter – and 32 years later, Jackie Kennedy set in motion the idea of trimming the tree according to a specific theme. (The first year saw the fir hung with ornamental toys, birds and angels from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite ballet.)

From then on the Blue Room tree took on new significance and, in 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association began to hold a yearly competition to find the most splendid evergreen for the job. The only president whose tenure saw a distinct lack of Christmas trees was Theodore Roosevelt: a passionate environmentalist, he felt it inappropriate to remove trees from their natural setting. His son Archie found a way around this however, smuggling a small tree into an upstairs sewing cupboard to enjoy in secret.

The Edible Architecture

Another popular tradition is the creation of a white chocolate replica of the White House – a custom that began in the 1960s. This annual masterpiece takes months to build and has been known to weigh hundreds of pounds. But that’s not the only miniature architectural feat that takes place: since the early 70s, pastry chefs have whipped up a decorated gingerbread house for the enjoyment of the First Family and their visitors, displayed each year on a 1902 mahogany eagle console table, situated in front of a gilded pier mirror in the State Dining Room. These gingerbread constructions initially took the shape of a traditional German-style A-frame house, but over the years have taken on many different forms, from Santa’s workshop to an intricate replica of Hillary Clinton’s childhood home on Wisner Street in Park Ridge, lll (no detail was spared: it was cloned right down to a tiny stocking hanging from the minuscule fireplace). This year, the Obamas requested a giant gingerbread version of the White House, which weighs in at 300 pounds.

The Festive Cheer

White House yuletide parties are another holiday highlight. President Andrew Jackson, for example, famously held a grand dinner for his children in 1834, and orchestrated a huge indoor snowball fight with specially rolled cotton wool. For the grown-ups, eggnog has long fuelled the fun: it was, in fact, the favourite Christmas drink of the first president George Washington, who hand wrote the following recipe:

“One quart cream, one quart milk, one dozen tablespoons sugar, one pint brandy, ½ pint rye whiskey, ½ pint Jamaica rum, ¼ pint sherry — mix liquor first, then separate yolks and whites of 12 eggs, add sugar to beaten yolks, mix well. Add milk and cream, slowly beating. Beat whites of eggs until stiff and fold slowly into mixture. Let set in cool place for several days. Taste frequently.”

The White House has refined the recipe over the years, although they famously keep it a secret. One thing’s for certain though: it packs a potent punch. Perhaps it was one eggnog nip too many that encouraged Nancy Reagan, in 1983, decked in a striped dress and red pompom-bearing shoes, to hop on the lap of the muscular TV star Mr T, himself dressed as a sexy Santa, and plant a kiss on his brow. The Santa Claus garb was a regular dress code requirement at the Reagans’ Christmas parties, but Mr T declared proudly in a recent interview, "I was one of the wildest Santa Clauses they ever had. I had my cut-off sleeves. I had my combat boots on.” – and the First Lady, who would go on to become good friends with the actor, clearly couldn’t resist his charms. The result is arguably the best set of White House Christmas photographs of all time.