Holiday Traditions at the White House

Around the holidays, Americans can expect their president to observe certain traditions at the White House. In October, we know the First Family will decorate for Halloween and likely organize an extravagant party. In November, we are sure to see news coverage of the turkey pardoning just before or on Thanksgiving. And for every other holiday, the president is sure to carry on some other tradition. But while the traditions themselves are familiar to us, their history may not be so apparent, or we might be misinformed. For example, the turkey pardoning is sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, or even JFK. In reality, it really started with George H. W. Bush, but official turkey presentations at the White House pre-date the 1989 pardoning. So to complement our presidential exhibit and in the spirit of the holidays, we thought it appropriate to examine a few White House holiday traditions, asking when they were started and how they developed over time.

Halloween

Since at least the mid-20thcentury, Halloween observances in some form have become a regular fixture of White House holiday celebrations. Lady Mamie Eisenhower first decorated the White House for Halloween; skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, and witch and goblin heads were displayed throughout the building. She even hosted a holiday lunch for staffers and their wives.1 The Kennedys continued the practice when they moved in, but made their celebrations more child-centric, inviting trick-or-treaters representing UNICEF to the White House. 2 Nixon, too, invited children from various institutions like the C. Melvin Sharp Health School and Hospital for Sick Children. 3 The practice of inviting children to the White House for Halloween has continued down to the Obamas.

Thanksgiving

Photo of President George H. W. Bush pardoning the first turkey on November 14, 1989, during The Natinal Turkey Presentation in the Rose Garden at The White House Bush Presidential Library and Museum Collection, College Station, Texas

President George H. W. Bush pardoning the first turkey on November 14, 1989, Bush Presidential Library and Museum Collection, College Station, Texas

In November 1989, George H. W. Bush, after being presented with his first Thanksgiving turkey, said it “has been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.” 4 Each of Bush’s successors have likewise extended pardons to their Thanksgiving turkeys, and in 2015, Obama pardoned Abe, the twenty-seventh turkey to receive this honor. 5

These turkeys were then sent to a farm to live out the remainder of their lives. 6 However, Bush’s pardon was more an innovation rather than the start of an altogether new tradition. There already was a long history of the president being publicly presented with a turkey for the holidays going back to Harry Truman.

In 1947, the National Turkey Federation became the official supplier of the White House turkey, providing one to Truman, who happily accepted and dined on it that year. 7 It was the start of a major media event that continued in every presidential administration thereafter with many of the presidents eating their birds. 8 Yet Bush’s pardon was not without some precedent. Presidents sometimes chose not to serve the offered turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, instead sending it to live on a farm. JFK did just that in November 1963, mere weeks before his assassination, saying “We’ll just let this one grow.” 9 But there was no talk of granting pardons from the White House when these turkeys were spared. It wasn’t until Bush’s pardon that allowing the bird to live became an established part of the tradition.

But since that 1989 pardon, the tradition has continued to grow. These days the pardoned turkey is declared Grand Marshall of the Disneyland Thanksgiving parade and leads the procession. 10

Christmas

Prior to the 20th century, the First Family privately celebrated Christmas. Theodore Roosevelt may have been the first president to celebrate publicly, hosting a carnival for 500 children that included dinner, music, and souvenirs. But President Taft displayed the first public and official Christmas tree for the White House, a tradition that has continued.11

Calvin Coolidge, on the other hand, was the first to preside over the lighting of the National Christmas tree in 1923. 12 White House staff decorated the 48-foot fir tree with 2500 electric bulbs in red, white, and green. Thirty-one years later, in 1954, the Washington Board of Trade expanded the National Tree ceremony with the “Christmas Pageant of Peace,” to celebrate the end of the Korean War. This three-week event has been held every year along with the lighting ceremony, and includes live music and dance performances; today, though, the Pageant of Peace celebrates peace and harmony more generally rather than the end of the Korean War. 13

Conclusion

As a final note, perhaps the most striking feature in the history of these holiday traditions is not so much their continuity but how each successive presidential administration makes the celebrations their own. In that way, these traditions do not remain static but are routinely reinvented, reflecting broader changes in how Americans have celebrated the holidays over time.

Around the holidays, Americans can expect their president to observe certain traditions at the White House. In October, we know the First Family will decorate for Halloween and likely organize an extravagant party. In November, we are sure to see news coverage of the turkey pardoning just before or on Thanksgiving. And for every other holiday, the president is sure to carry on some other tradition. But while the traditions themselves are familiar to us, their history may not be so apparent, or we might be misinformed. For example, the turkey pardoning is sometimes attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, or even JFK. In reality, it really started with George H. W. Bush, but official turkey presentations at the White House pre-date the 1989 pardoning. So to complement our presidential exhibit and in the spirit of the holidays, we thought it appropriate to examine a few White House holiday traditions, asking when they were started and how they developed over time.

Written by Timothy Spezia, Assistant Curator

[Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 Flat Rock Historical Society Newsletter. It is reprinted here with endnotes.]

  1. Halloween at the White House,” White House Historical Association, accessed October 12, 2016, http://www.whitehousehistory.org/press-room/halloween-at-the-white-house.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Monica Hesse, “Turkey Pardons, The Stuffing of Historic Legend,” Washington Post, November 21, 2007, accessed October 12, 2016, http://www.washingtonpost.com
  5.  Megan Slack, “The Definitive History of the Presidential Turkey Pardon,” whitehouse.gov, last modified November 23, 2011, http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/11/23/definitive-history-presidential-turkey-pardon.
  6. Ibid
  7. “Thanksgiving at the White House,” White House Historical Association, accessed October 12, 2016, http://www.whitehousehistory.org/press-room/thanksgiving-at-the-white-house.
  8. Hesse
  9. Ibid
  10. “Thanksgiving at the White House”
  11. “Holidays in the White House: First Family Traditions,” Washington, DC, accessed October 12, 2016, http://www.washington.org/article/holidays-white-house-first-family-traditions.
  12. “Christmas Traditions at the White House,” White House Historical Association, accessed October 12, 2016, http://www.whitehousehistory.org/christmas-traditions-at-the-white-house.
  13. “Event History & Timeline,” National Christmas Tree Lighting 2016, accessed October 12, 2016, http://www.thenationaltree.org/event-history.

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