Press releases and photo spreads of the White House Christmas tree are a standing tradition in contemporary America. Multiple trees can be found throughout the White House during the holiday season, but in most years the "official" Christmas tree is kept in the Blue Room, the distinctive oval first floor parlor that serves as the president's main reception area. The room’s crystal chandelier is temporarily removed to make room for the towering tree. Since 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association has donated a choice specimen, usually measuring between 18 and 20 feet high, specially chosen from an American Christmas tree grower. These particularly beautiful trees have come from all over the country, but more have been chosen from North Carolina, Wisconsin and Washington than from any other states.
According to the White House Historical Association, the custom of a White House Christmas tree began in 1888 during the administration of Benjamin Harrison. Rather than decorating a state room, the tree was placed in the second floor oval parlor that is today known as the Yellow Oval Room. Not every presidential family consistently followed suit at first. It is said that President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent conservationist, disapproved of cutting fresh trees for use as holiday decoration. However, his spirited son Archie managed to hide a tree, trimmed with gifts, in an upstairs White House closet before revealing it to the family on Christmas day.
Electricity was still something of a novelty when in 1894 the family of President Grover Cleveland enjoyed the first electric lights to be placed on a White House Christmas tree. The first tree to adorn the state floor of the elegant Blue Room occurred in 1909 during the presidency of William H. Taft. Prior to that time, Christmas decorations and celebrations had been confined to the families’ less formal living quarters.
Credit for the first White House tree officially decorated by a serving president’s spouse goes to First Lady Lou Henry Hoover, in 1929. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy began a practice that continues to this day when she chose a nutcracker motif for her White House tree in 1961. Since that time, each First Lady has placed her own stamp on the decorations by assigning a theme for that year's tree. The ornaments chosen for any particular year often represent her personal interests, or highlight special groups of Americans.
First Lady Patricia Nixon in 1969 chose disabled workers in Florida to create ornaments featuring state flowers. Reflecting heightened interest in recycling in 1974, First Lady Betty Ford used handmade ornaments crafted by senior citizens and women from Appalachia. In 1977 First Lady Rosalynn Carter displayed the handiwork of members of the National Association for Retarded Citizens. For most of the years her husband was in office, First Lady Nancy Reagan arranged for patients in Second Genesis, a drug treatment program, to fashion ornaments for the White House Christmas trees.
First Lady Barbara Bush highlighted family literacy by creating a tree decorated with storybook characters. Throughout her eight years in the White House, First Lady Hillary Clinton focused on the importance of the arts by inviting American artists to submit ornaments. With her 2002 Christmas theme of “All Creatures Great and Small,” First Lady Laura Bush, an animal lover, educated Americans about the role of White House pets. Both the 2011 and 2012 White House trees overseen by First Lady Michelle Obama were dedicated to the various military branches, and to U.S. military members, veterans and families.
Photo Credits (all in the public domain):
Thumbnail: An 18-ft. Douglas fir being decorated in the Blue Room in 2006
Team of volunteers decorate the Blue Room tree
President John Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and White House Christmas tree, 1961
First Lady Laura Bush greets the arrival of the tree by horse-drawn carriage
First Lady Nancy Reagan trimming the tree in 1982
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and White House Christmas tree, 2009
2011 tree, dedicated to service members of all branches