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Christmas Traditions at the White House

Each First Lady of the United States brought her own style to the holiday decorations and celebrations at the White House. Their contributions were recognized and a few of these traditions are still being honored.

While visiting the George W Bush Museum and Library in Dallas, I purchased a book from the gift shop: CHRISTMAS AT THE WHITE HOUSE by Jennifer B. Pickens (Fife and Drum Press 2009). Filled with personal accounts, pictures, and historical information, the book spans over fifty years beginning with Jacqueline Kennedy and ending with First Lady Laura Bush. What a treasure! If you love US history and Christmas as much as I do, it’s the perfect combination.

(Read my blog about the Christmas exhibit at the Bush Museum here.)


Although this brilliant coffee table book weighs in at over 400 pages, I’ve listed a few fascinating tidbits that I discovered from reading the book CHRISTMAS AT THE WHITE HOUSE:

  • Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy definitely brought a sense of elegance and style to the role of First Lady. The most lasting of her contributions has been the tradition of annual decorating themes. She also requested that a magnificent chandelier be removed and the official tree be placed at the center of the Blue Room; a practice continued today.
  • Part of Mrs. Kennedy’s legacy is the use of community service to create the decorations. Through the years, each First Lady has utilized volunteer civic groups, florists, bakers, artists, and craftsman representing every state.

    The Blue Room and the official holiday tree, recreated at the Bush Museum and Library, Dallas.

    The Blue Room and the official holiday tree, recreated at the Bush Museum and Library, Dallas.

  • Mrs. Kennedy established an official location to prominently display the Creche in the East Room. In 1967, an 18th-century Neapolitan Creche became part of the mansion’s art treasures. As a gift to Lady Bird Johnson, the piece was acquired from a family in Naples, who had been collecting nativity figures for over 300 years. The donor, Jane Engelhard, had traveled extensively to locate the perfect Creche, worthy of our White House.
  • Lady Bird Johnson introduced dancing for the first time at the White House State dinner  in 1963, a reflection of her love for hosting guests and of their “true Texas-style energy“.
  • A national contest was established in 1966 by Lady Bird to select the official People’s House Christmas tree. Sponsored by the National Christmas Tree Growers’ Association, Howard E. Pierce of Black River Falls, Wisconsin was declared the winner. Howard and his twelve-year-old son Mark presented the tree to Mrs. Johnson at the White House.
  • Lady Bird Johnson began hosting the press as the public took more notice of the decorations, the national contest for the tree selection, and the official ceremony of presenting the tree to The First Lady.
  • Pat Nixon hosted the first candlelight evening tours of the White House in 1969. She also displayed holiday cards and artifacts from previous presidencies.
  • In an effort to “take the tinsel out of the White House holiday” and remind Americans about the true meaning of Christmas, First lady Betty Ford restored the use of handcrafted ornaments. She began recording details and information about the decorations, which later evolved into a holiday tour book.  The standard for appearance and content was set by First Lady Rosalynn Carter in 1978.

    Decorations in the Oval Office display. Bush Library and Museum, Dallas.

    Decorations in the detailed Oval Office exhibit. Bush Library and Museum, Dallas.

  • As I study the magnificent photographs in this book, there is no question that First Lady  Nancy Reagan took decorations up several notches, worthy of any Hollywood production. “The White House staff brought in more trees than in past years, and Christmas vignettes were displayed in every nook and cranny of the State Floor.” In 1988 the East Room featured eight flocked trees , from eighteen to twenty-feet high, decorated with tiny white lights and silver snowflakes, tinsel and icicles.
  • First Lady Barbara Bush invited the press corp upstairs to see the private family decorations. Her decorations are remembered for the abundance of snow and red bows making the atmosphere more personable.
  • With the addition of Chef Hans Raffert in 1969, the unveiling of the official gingerbread house became a much anticipated event. Laura Bush began the tradition of having a detailed replica of the White House recreated in gingerbread, with every part edible.
  • First Lady Hillary Clinton introduced a recycling process, whereby decorations from precious years were incorporated into the new themes and designs. Mrs. Clinton opened the White House to 150,000 people who toured the White House each year, and hosted over 30,000 guests at private parties. “This house and its history belongs to all Americans…”
  • As a reflection of her Librarian career, First Lady Laura Bush introduced imagination, whimsy, and creativity into the themes and decorations. Christmas at The White House became a “magical experience.” She began the ever popular Barney Cam.
Best loved songs of the Christmas season was the theme in 2004.

Best loved songs of the Christmas season was the theme in 2004. “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”

As I look through this important contribution to the records of our nation’s history, I’ve never put much though into how important the role of First Lady is to our country.  In their own unique way, they each brought a sense of elegance and pride for our nation.

If you or someone you know loves US history, remember that books make great gifts!


Natalie Cline Bright is a blogger and author of the fun, historical western TROUBLE IN TEXAS series for middle grades, the RESCUE ANIMAL eBook series, and is currently working on an action-packed novel for young adults, WOLF’S WAR. Read about Natalie’s grandmother and her cherry salad recipe, recently selected for “THE WESTERN WRITERS OF AMERICA COOKBOOK: Favorite Recipes, Cooking Tips, and Writing Wisdom” (TwoDot Publishing, June 2017).