The Myth About Obama and the Holiday Tree

President Obama and First Family lighting the national Christmas tree
US National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony. Paul Morigi/Wireimage

There are many vicious rumors about President Barack Obama and his religion. One such myth is that Obama is a closet Muslim. Another alleges Obama canceled the National Day of Prayer.

Here's one more oddball, and wrong, claim that makes the rounds at Christmastime: The Obamas did away with the traditional White House Christmas tree beginning in 2009 in favor of a secular "holiday tree."

Myth of the Obama Holiday Tree Spreads

A widely circulated email reads, in part:

"We have a friend at church who is a very talented artist. For several years she, among many others, has painted ornaments to be hung on the various White House Christmas trees. The WH sends out an invitation to send an ornament and informs the artists of the theme for the year.
"She got her letter from the WH recently. It said that they would not be called Christmas trees this year. They will be called Holiday trees. And, to please not send any ornaments painted with a religious theme."

The myth of the Obama holiday tree is just a bunch of holiday hooey.

The origins of the email are unknown, and thus suspect. The White House has denied ever sending such a letter instructing artists not to send ornaments with religious themes.

How the Obamas Refer to the Tree

The Obamas themselves refer to the tree that adorns the White House Blue Room as a Christmas tree, not a holiday tree.

First Lady Michelle Obama, speaking with the president on his weekly radio address on Dec. 24, 2009, made reference to the White House Christmas tree.

"This is our first Christmas in the White House, and we are so grateful for this extraordinary experience," Mrs. Obama said. "Not far from here, in the Blue Room, is the official White House Christmas tree.

"It's an 18-foot tall Douglas-fir from West Virginia and it's decorated with hundreds of ornaments designed by people and children from all over the country. Each one is a reminder of the traditions we cherish as Americans and the blessings we're thankful for this holiday season."

The official White House website, by the way, contains not a single reference to any "holiday tree."

And the National Christmas Tree Association, whose members have presented the official White House tree for the Blue Room since 1966, also calls it a "Christmas tree," not a holiday tree.

It's time for this holiday hoax to be nipped in the bud.

True Facts About the White House Christmas Tree

The White House Christmas Tree, not to be confused with the National Christmas Tree, is the official indoor Christmas tree at the White House. The National Christmas Tree is the much larger tree installed annualy on the Ellipse outside the White House.

The “first” White House Christmas Tree is believed to have been installed by either President Franklin Pierce during the 1850s or by President Benjamin Harrison during the late 1880s. The tradition of the First Lady choosing a decorative theme for the tree began in 1961, when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy selected a Nutcracker motif.

There have been years in which no indoor White House Christmas tree was installed. According to presidential historians, there was no Christmas tree in the White House in 1902, 1904, 1907, and 1922. The lack of a tree in 1902 was because President Theodore Roosevelt had failed to order one by December 23.

Since there was not yet a White House while first President George Washington held office, he couldn't have displayed a tree there. There is no evidence that Abraham Lincoln ever displayed a Christmas tree in the White House, and in 1922, First Lady Florence Harding's illness led to a more subdued Christmas celebration at the Warren G. Harding White House, and no Christmas tree was displayed.

The White House Christmas tree has been displayed in the Blue Room many times since 1961, although it has also occasionally been displayed in the Grand Entrance Hall. There is more than one Christmas tree in and around the White House. In 1997, for example, there were 36 and in 2008 there were 27. Traditionally, the tree in the Blue Room is the official White House Christmas tree.

The White House Christmas tree usually stands nearly 20 feet tall and the crystal chandelier in the Blue Room must be removed for the tree to fit. Since 1966, The Blue Room tree has been donated by the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) as chosen among members of the trade group. The NCTA selects the White House Christmas tree from various growers nationwide. Growers in the state of North Carolina have provided 14 trees, more than any other state. The states of Washington and Wisconsin, as of 2011, share the second-highest total of trees provided for the White House with seven each.

Earlier Christmas Controversies

The Obama tree is far from the first White House Christmas to spark criticism. In 1899, the Chicago Daily Tribune urged President William McKinley to drop what the newspaper called the “Christmas tree habit,” in reference to backers of the “forestry fad” of the day, which had called the cutting of Christmas trees “arboreal infanticide.” Others called Christmas trees “un-American,” being a historically German tradition. In 1899, only one Christmas tree was placed inside the White House—in the kitchen for the maids.

In 1969, at the height of the Cold War, President Richard Nixon’s choice of the atomic symbol rather than a traditional religious star as a White House tree topper drew harsh rebuke. In 1995, President Bill Clinton was criticized for “politicizing” the tree. The controversy surrounded an ornament that depicted two Christmas stockings, one marked “Bill” and one marked “Newt,” in reference to Democrat Clinton’s arch political rival, Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The stocking marked “Bill” was filled with candy and gifts, while the one marked “Newt” was full of coal. 

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Murse, Tom. "The Myth About Obama and the Holiday Tree." ThoughtCo, Jul. 4, 2022, Murse, Tom. (2022, July 4). The Myth About Obama and the Holiday Tree. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "The Myth About Obama and the Holiday Tree." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).