Christmas at the White House In the 19th Century

Often Overlooked Benjamin Harrison Made Christmas Lavish In the White House

Engraved illustration of the White House in winter in the 19th century
The White House in winter in the 19th century. Getty Images

Christmas celebrations at the White House have fascinated the public for decades. And especially since the 1960s, when Jacqueline Kennedy had the president's house decorated based on the theme of "The Nutcracker," First Ladies have supervised elaborate transformations for the holiday season.

In the 1800s things were quite different. That isn't entirely surprising. In the early decades of the 19th century Americans generally viewed Christmas as a religious holiday to be celebrated in a modest manner with family members.

And the high point of the holiday social season at the White House would have taken place on New Year's Day. Tradition throughout the 1800s was that the president hosted an open house on the first day of each year. He would patiently stand for hours, and people who had waited on a long line stretching out to Pennsylvania Avenue would file in to shake the president's hand and wish him "Happy New Year." 

Despite the apparent lack of Christmas celebrations at the White House in the early 1800s, a number of legends of White House Christmases circulated a century later. After Christmas had become a widely celebrated and very public holiday, newspapers in the early 1900s routinely published articles presenting some highly questionable history.

In these creative versions, Christmas traditions which hadn't been observed until decades later were sometimes ascribed to early presidents.

For instance, an article in the Evening Star, a Washington, D.C. newspaper, published on December 16, 1906, related how Thomas Jefferson's daughter Martha decorated the White House with "Christmas trees." That seems unlikely. There are reports of Christmas trees appearing in America in the late 1700s in specific regions. But the custom of Christmas trees did not become common in America until decades later.

The same article also claimed that the family of Ulysses S. Grant family celebrated with elaborate Christmas trees in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Yet the White House Historical Society claims the first White House Christmas tree appeared fairly late in the century, in 1889.

It's easy to see that many stories of early Christmases in the White House are either greatly exaggerated or simply untrue. In part, that's because an essentially private holiday celebrated with family members would naturally have gone unreported. Searching in early 19th century newspaper archives dredges up no contemporaneous accounts of Christmas observances in the White House. That absence of reliable information led to the creation of charming, yet utterly fake, history.

An apparent need to exaggerate the history of Christmas in the White House may have been motivated in part by something often overlooked today. For much of its early history, the White House was a residence seemingly cursed with a number of tragedies.

A number of presidents were in mourning throughout part of their time in office, including Abraham Lincoln, whose son Willie died in the White House in 1862. Andrew Jackson's wife Rachel died just days before Christmas in 1828, a month after he was elected president. Jackson traveled to Washington and took up residence in the President's House, as it was known at the time, as a grieving widower.

Two 19th century presidents died in office before celebrating a Christmas (William Henry Harrison and James Garfield), while one died after celebrating only one Christmas (Zachary Taylor). Two wives of 19th century presidents died while their husbands were in office. Letitia Tyler, the wife of John Tyler, suffered a stroke and later died in the White House on September 10, 1842. And Caroline Scott Harrison, wife of Benjamin Harrison, died of tuberculosis in the White House on October 25, 1892.

It could seem that the story of Christmas in the first century of the White House is simply too depressing to think about. Yet, one of those who would be touched by tragedy in the White House was, a few years previously, the unlikely hero who emerged late in the 1800s to make Christmas a major celebration in the big mansion on Pennsylvania Avenue.

People today tend to only remember Benjamin Harrison because he holds a unique place in presidential trivia. His single term in office came between the two non-consecutive terms of Grover Cleveland.

Harrison holds another distinction. He was the president credited with having the first White House Christmas tree, installed during his first Christmas in the White House, in 1889. He was not just enthusiastic about Christmas. Harrison seemed eager to let the public know he was celebrating it in grand style.

Benjamin Harrison's Lavish Christmas

Benjamin Harrison was not known for celebrations. He was generally considered to have a fairly bland personality. He was quiet and scholarly, and after serving as president he wrote a textbook on government. Voters knew that he taught Sunday school. His reputation was not for frivolity, so it seems odd that he would be known for having the first White House Christmas tree.

He took office in March 1889, at a time when most Americans had adapted to the idea of Christmas as a celebratory holiday symbolized by Santa Claus and Christmas trees. So it's possible that Harrison's Christmas cheer was simply a matter of timing.

It is also conceivable that Harrison took a great interest in Christmas because of his own family history. His grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was elected president when Benjamin was seven years old. And the elder Harrison served the shortest term of any president. A cold he had caught, probably while delivering his inaugural address, which lasted for two hours in a horrific winter weather, turned into pneumonia.

William Henry Harrison died in the White House on April 4, 1841, only a month after taking office. His grandson never got to enjoy a Christmas in the White House as a child. Perhaps that's why Harrison made an effort to have elaborate Christmas celebrations in the White House focused on the amusement of his own grandchildren.

Harrison's grandfather, though born on a Virginia plantation, had campaigned in 1840 by aligning himself with common folk with the "Log Cabin and Hard Cider" campaign. His grandson, taking office at the height of the Gilded Age, had no embarrassment about showcasing an affluent lifestyle in the White House .

The newspaper accounts of the Harrison family Christmas in 1889 are packed full of details which must have been willingly passed along for public consumption. A story on the front page of the New York Times on Christmas Day 1889 began by noting that many presents intended for the president's grandchildren had been stowed away in a White House bedroom. The article also mentioned "the wonderful Christmas tree, which is to dazzle the eyes of the White House babies..."

The tree was described as a "foxtail hemlock, 8 or 9 feet tall, liberally decked with glittering glass balls and pendants, while from the topmost branch to the edge of the square table on which the tree stands it is showered over with countless strands of gold tinsel. To add to the brilliant effect, the end of every branch is capped with four-sided lanterns of various colors and finished with a long point of shining glass filled with quicksilver."

The New York Times article also described a lavish array of toys President Harrison would be giving to his grandson on Christmas morning:

"Among the many things which the President has purchased for his favorite grandchild is a mechanical toy -- an engine which, on being wound up, puffs and snorts at a terrific rate as it speeds over the floor, carrying behind a train of cars. There there is a sled, a drum, guns, horns without number, tiny blackboards on miniature easels, with crayons of every hue and color for the baby fingers, a hook-and-ladder apparatus which would send a thrill of delight to the heart of any little boy in creation, and a long slim box containing parlor croquet."

The article also noted that the president's young granddaughter would be receiving a number of gifts, including "jumping jacks with cap and bells, a tiny piano, rocking chairs, all manner of furry coated animals, and bits of jewelry, and last, but by no means least, at the base of the tree is to stand a real Santa Claus, three feet high, laden with toys, dolls, and stockings filled with bonbons."

The article concluded with a florid description of how the tree would be lit late on Christmas Day: 

"In the evening, between 4 and 5 o'clock, the tree is to be lighted, that the children may view it in its full glory, when they will be joined by several little friends, who will add their quota to the joyous clatter and din incident to Christmas."

The first White House Christmas tree to be decorated with electric lights appeared in December 1894, during the second term of Grover Cleveland. According to the White House Historical Association, the tree lit with electric bulbs was placed in the second floor library and was enjoyed by Cleveland's two young daughters.

A small front-page item in the New York Times on Christmas Eve 1894 seemed to refer to that tree when it stated, "A gorgeous Christmas tree will be lighted at twilight with vari-colored electric lamps."

The way Christmas was celebrated in the White House at the end of the 19th century was vastly different than when the century began.

First White House Christmas

The first president to live in the President's House was John Adams. He arrived to take up residence on November 1, 1800, in the final year of his single term as president. The building was still unfinished, and when his wife, Abigail Adams, arrived weeks later, she found herself living in a mansion that was partly a construction site.

The first residents of the White House were almost immediately plunged into mourning. On November 30, 1800, their son Charles Adams, who had suffered from alcoholism for years, died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 30.

Bad news continued for John Adams as he learned in early December that his attempt to gain a second term as president had been thwarted. On Christmas Eve 1800 a Washington, D.C., newspaper, the National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser, published a front-page article showing that two candidates, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, would surely place ahead of Adams. The election of 1800 was eventually decided by balloting in the House of Representatives when Jefferson and Burr became locked in a tie in the electoral college.

Despite this cascade of bad news, it is believed that John and Abigail Adams held a small Christmas celebration for a four-year-old granddaughter. And other children of "official" Washington may have been invited.

A week later, Adams began the tradition of holding an open house on New Year's Day. That practice continued well into the 20th century. It's hard to imagine, in our era of intense security around government buildings and political figures, but up until the administration of Herbert Hoover, thousands of people could simply line up outside the White House once a year and shake hands with the president.

The lighthearted tradition of presidential handshakes on New Year's Day figures in a story about a very serious matter. President Abraham Lincoln intended to sign the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year's Day 1863. Throughout the day he was shaking hands with thousands of visitors who had filed through the first floor of the White House. By the time he went upstairs to his office his right hand was swollen.

As he sat down to sign the proclamation he remarked to Secretary of State William Seward that he hoped his signature wouldn't appear shaky on the document or it would look like he had hesitated while signing it.

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McNamara, Robert. "Christmas at the White House In the 19th Century." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 16). Christmas at the White House In the 19th Century. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Christmas at the White House In the 19th Century." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).