A History of Holiday Decor at the White House

Decorating for the holidays is a time-honored tradition at the White House.

Repositories that Taylor Research Group frequents to conduct historical research, such as the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Library of Congress, hold many photographs that document such décor. From Christmas trees to menorahs, over the years winter holiday ornamentations at the White House have become increasingly grand, public, and inclusive.

Christmas Trees at the White House

White House Christmas festivities were traditionally small affairs in the 19th century, observed in private by the president and his family.

However, when it came to Christmas trees, President Teddy Roosevelt believed that the First Family must act as an example to the American people. In 1902, the passionate conservationist banned Christmas trees in the White House in effort to take a public stand against what he believed to be a destructive and overly popular form of deforestation. Due to protests from his children however, a few years later evergreens were once again welcomed in the White House.

Meanwhile, in 1923, President Calvin Coolidge introduced a very public celebration of Christmas trees, presiding over the lighting of the first National Christmas tree.

The tradition continued on through 1941, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill attending the ceremony that year despite security concerns incited by Pearl Harbor. However, due to the need to conserve electricity, the National tree was not lit throughout the rest of World War II. When President Harry Truman pushed a button to light the tree on Christmas Eve of 1945, it was the first time the tree had been lit since 1941.

In 1961, First Lady Jackie Kennedy began the tradition of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas tree. She chose the Nutcracker Suite as her first theme, decorating the tree with ornamental toys, birds, and figurines in honor of the famous ballet.

Concerns over the security of the National Tree lighting re-emerged after 9/11. In November of 2001, the Secret Service announced that public access to The Ellipse would be limited to ticket-holders, but restrictions were loosened by the time of the ceremony. Tickets – available through a free lottery – are required to attend the event to this day.

Menorahs at the White House

 Almost all American presidents have grown up in the Christian faith, and historically Christmas was the only winter holiday acknowledged and celebrated at the White House.

It was not until 1979 that Jimmy Carter became the first sitting president to officially recognize Hanukkah. In the midst of the Iran hostage crisis, he lit the  newly-established National Menorah at Lafayette Park, taking a step towards inclusivity for White House holiday festivities.

The celebration of Hanukkah has become more and more integrated into White House tradition over the years. While President Ronald Reagan was gifted a menorah from a Jewish organization in 1984, President George H.W. Bush was the first to display a menorah in the White House. In 1993, President Bill Clinton held the first menorah-lighting ceremony in the White House.

Uncovering documentation of historical events in national and local repositories is TRG’s specialty. We hope you enjoyed this glimpse into White House Christmases and Hanukkahs past, and we wish you a wonderful holiday season!

 Workman decorate the front of White House, December 19, 1939. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.   

Workman decorate the front of White House, December 19, 1939. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.