Christmas at the White House
What are the holidays like in
the White House?
Well, it depends on the presidency but usually they are an exaggerated version of our own holidays. One of the presidents’ kids described it to me as “bedlam,” family and friends flown in from all over. Pure joy. And also stressful. But keep in mind, the celebration usually moves out of the WH and on to Camp David.
Let’s talk about that. What’s fun?
And what’s stressful?
At the WH there are first run movies in the theatre. Not just a turkey but the national turkey. Not just a Christmas tree but the national Christmas tree and an entire forest of decorated trees on the State floor. Not just a gingerbread house but the most cleverly, crafted gingerbread house in the nation. But it all comes with a price. You won’t be able to eat the gingerbread house because it will have the germs of a ten thousand people shuffled in and out of parties, receptions, East Room briefings, and State Dining Room breakfasts.
You mention stressful times
over the holidays.
I suppose that’s like the rest of us.
Yes, five American presidents lost their mothers during this holiday time and three lost their fathers. There have been some suicide attempts among in-laws. On November 25, 1885, the Vice President, Thomas Hendricks, died in office. That was quite a distraction for President Cleveland. Remember, John F. Kennedy was assassinated just days before Thanksgiving. Both Harry Truman and Gerald Ford died the day after Christmas. And Calvin Coolidge died just after the New Year holiday celebration. So Holidays can be stressful even for first families.
You mentioned Lincoln’s crisis during the holidays and during the transition, when he was president-elect. Is the transition a vulnerable time?
Yes, this has sometimes been a very vulnerable time and not just for the nation but in a personal sense for the first family.
I was saddened, for example, when president Obama won the election in 2008 and then lost his grandmother, the person who had raised him. But I was not surprised. This is, in fact, quite common.
When Andrew Jackson won the election, his wife went to Nashville to buy a dress for the inauguration and she saw the newspapers that had attacked her husband and the accusations that she was an adulterer and a bigamist and it sent her into shock. She was a very devout, religious woman. She died December 22 and never moved into the White House with her husband.
Something similar happened to president elect Franklin Pierce. He and his wife spent Christmas in Boston, shopping for the inauguration. They were in a train wreck on the ride back to New Hampshire and they were okay but their only son was decapitated in front of their eyes. Mrs. Pierce did not attend her husband’s inauguration and was in mourning throughout most of his presidency.
"History takes no holiday"
The holidays offer no rest for the presidency. History takes no holiday. This has always been the case. Right from the beginning.
- Remember, George Washington crossed the Delaware to attack the English on Christmas Day.
- The Bill of Rights was signed Dec 15
- France ceded the Louisiana Purchase on Dec 20, 1803
- The British Embargo act was declared on Dec 22, 1807
- The War of 1812 ended, Dec 24, 1814.
- On December 20, 1850, President Elect, Abraham Lincoln learned that South Carolina had seceded from the Union. By the way, he was the president-elect and had not even been sworn into office but every word Lincoln spoke during his transition had crucial consequences.
- The day after Xmas in 1917, in the middle of World War One, Woodrow Wilson’s government took over the American Railroad system, throwing everybody's holiday travel plans into chaos.
- The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
- FDR and his family were celebrating Christmas at Hyde Park in 1944, while American troops were pinned down by German soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge.
- Fidel Castro’s revolution picked up steam during the holidays of 1958 and he came to power in Cuba on January 1st.
So the president may be there to carve the turkey but is he really there? Not always.
What was your biggest surprise in researching first families and the holidays?
Well, it was to learn how close the families felt on these holidays. I interviewed 19 of the living children and our current president about this very subject and most expressed how separated their families had been over the years and how close they became during the White House experience. There are jets to go out and get them bring them in. And if history doesn’t slow down during the holidays, the national media does and sometimes, that gives the family a little respite.