Source: Wikimedia/Robert Knudsen, White House Collection

Some American traditions feel so timeless that it’s hard to believe that they haven’t always existed. America is a relatively young country, though, which means that many of our beloved traditions are even younger. One such tradition, the White House observance of Christmas, only became a formal event after the advent of the 20th century.

Not an Old Tradition, at All

Prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, the First Family typically spent their Christmases more privately. While they did live in the White House, they would decorate with evergreens and celebrate the holiday privately with family and friends.

Source: Wikimedia/The White House

It wasn’t until 1889 that the first formal White House Christmas tree was erected. It was decorated with candles and toys and placed in the second story oval room, which was used as a library and family parlor at the time. This now-beloved tradition was put into place by President Benjamin Harrison, and the holiday cheer took off from there.

A Cultural Staple, with Deep Roots

As the nineteenth century drew to a close and electric lights became commonplace, the practice of the White House Christmas became a cultural staple. The first electric lights were installed on a Christmas tree in 1894 for Grover Cleveland’s daughters, and in 1912 William H. Taft’s children helped to decorate the first tree on the State Floor of the Blue Room.

Source: Wikimedia/The White House

This continued a tradition that has been ongoing for as long as the presidency of the United States has existed. At Christmas, even before the White House Christmas became a standard event, the building was still a magical place for children. Presidents would host their children and grandchildren in its halls, hosting memorable events for their families.

Some Early Celebrations

One of the most elaborate of these early events was hosted in 1835, by Andrew Jackson, Yes, that Andrew Jackson. The winter party for the children of his household included games and dancing, dinner, and ended with an elaborate indoor snowball fight with snowballs made out of cotton.

Source: Wikimedia/White House Photo Office Collection (Nixon Administration)

Even earlier, historically, the first White House Christmas party was held in 1800 by President John Adams, and his first lady Abigail. It was a quiet affair, one that was held for their granddaughter, Susanna Boylston Adams, who was living with them at the time. They invited some other government officials and their families for this first Christmas party at the White House.

Into the Twentieth Century

The traditions at the White House grew more elaborate, and grander as the years turned into the twentieth century. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt and his wife Edith held a carnival for over 500 children during the Christmas season. The event included dinner, dancing, entertainment, and a special treat in the form of ice cream shaped like Santa and other holiday novelties.

Source: WikimediaWhite House Photographic Office

This story is in direct contrast to a popular myth about Teddy Roosevelt that still circulates, which is that during his presidency, he “banned” Christmas trees at the White House. There’s no evidence that the trees were not allowed at the White House during his presidency, only that he and Edith didn’t choose to celebrate the holiday by putting up a tree.

A Family Event

1923 saw the first executive of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, presiding over the lighting of the National Christmas Tree in 1923. Today, the lighting of that tree is held during the Christmas Pageant of Peace, which is an event that has been held since its inception in 1954.

Source: Wikimedia/The White House

Presidents were not the only individuals who held an important part in the celebration of Christmas at the White House. First ladies often had an important role in helping set up the decorations around the holidays, and the mid-twentieth century saw a new tradition introduced by Jackie Kennedy.

The Tradition of the Blue Room, and Themes

While Mamie Eisenhower was the First Lady who started the tradition of setting up the Christmas tree in the Blue Room, Jackie Kennedy was the presidential wife who started the tradition of selecting a theme for the White House Christmas tree in the Blue Room, in 1961.

Source: Wikimedia/The White House

That first year, the theme for the tree was the Nutcracker, and the tree was decorated with ornamental toys, birds, angels, and other characters from the Nutcracker Suite. The following year, though, the tradition of placing the Christmas Tree in the Blue Room was interrupted by renovation work, and the tree ended up displayed in the Entrance Hall.

The Sight of Politicians and Celebrities

The White House Christmas Tree has seen not only many American Presidents and First Lady’s, but other diplomats and important politicians as well. In 1965, Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his wife were shown the White House Christmas Tree by President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird.

Source: Wikimedia/The White House

Politicians were not the only visitors to the White House Christmas Tree over the years, either. In 1983, the unveiling of the Blue Room Christmas Tree was accompanied not only by Nancy Reagon, the First Lady, but also by Mr. T! The star of The A-Team was dressed up as Santa, and created a more than memorable holiday season for the year.

Different Themes, From Different Women

Different First Ladies have chosen different themes for the White House Christmas Tree. After Jackie Kennedy’s Nutcracker Tree, Patricia Nixon chose the them of American Flowers for the tree. Betty Ford decorated her first tree with ribbons and more classic Christmas ornaments.

Source: Wikimedia/The White House

While some choices for the holiday decoration of the White House might have been publicly unpopular – Melania Trump’s “American Treasures” theme with its forest of bright red trees comes to mind – each Christmas season brings a unique perspective to the White House from a couple who dedicates their time to the service of the country. The decoration and unveiling of the White House Christmas tree is a beloved tradition, one that will continue on for decades to come.