For twelve years, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt occupied in the White House and spent more Christmas holidays there than any other first family.
Strictly Roosevelt Traditions
Some holiday traditions are more or less universal. Then, of course, there are those personal traditions that nearly every family incorporates into its lifestyle. That includes Presidents.
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, whose personal lifestyle was diverse, made Christmas a three day family affair at the White House between 1933-1944. Naturally once WWII began, and all four Roosevelt sons were in uniform, it became impossible to gather the whole clan.
But the POTUS was happy to have whoever was in town, particularly the grandchildren. He sat at the head of the table, just as he did at Thanksgiving, and carved the huge turkey with the precision of a surgeon.
Perhaps the most FDR-ish of all, was the annual reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The entire book in once sitting. He had done for his own five children when they were small, and now he would do it for the grandchildren. He voice-acted every part in his inimitable style. Then each family member filed into FDR’s bedroom to hang their stocking on the mantel. Eleanor would fill them all later that night, and first thing in the morning, all the grandchildren would descend upon the President’s room.
But it was Mrs. Roosevelt who was the gift shopper in those days before cyber shopping or even letting her fingers do the walking. She shopped all year. She also knitted all year, making sweaters and scarves for family members.
Mrs. R’s Christmas Book
Beginning in 1922 and ending with her death in 1962, ER maintained a Christmas book of who sent cards and/or gifts, and what they were. She also kept a similar log of what she had sent. It became a very large thick book, but this way she avoided duplication of gifts, and even more importantly, she avoided omitting any well wishes however inadvertently.
When she was First Lady, her personal secretary or other staff member would keep the book updated.
The White House Staff Parties: Part I
It has been customary for every presidential family to host a party (and sometimes a series of parties) for staff members and their families. The Franklin Roosevelt White House staff was larger than any previous one. And of course, all staff parties and gifts are personally paid by the President. When literally hundreds of gifts are to be given, it becomes a costly affair. Signed photographs, some framed, some in presentation folders, have been popular gifts from several Presidents.
Special dinners or receptions were held for senior aides and staff members, many of whom had to perform intensely private and personal assistance to the disabled President. Mrs. Roosevelt drew on her strong connection with the Val-Kill Forge, part of a craft consortium near their estate at Hyde Park, NY. Mrs. R. had helped to establish the enterprise, and was always its best customer. Each year, the Forge supplied products for Christmas giving. One year it was pewter letter openers with the presidential seal; another year, match book covers, another time, paperweights or pad holders. One year, the Forge reproduced Fala, their Scottie, dangling from a key chain.
The White House Staff Parties: Part II
Like most things Eleanor Roosevelt cared deeply about, it was the parties the President and First Lady hosted for the lower level staff and their families that were most important to her. To a White House kitchen helper or maid, to an electrician or doorman or janitor, the opportunity to take their families to shake hands with FDR, to enjoy refreshments and to receive a small token of their appreciation was more than a memorable experience. It was an important event in their lives.
Eleanor Roosevelt was keenly aware of this, particularly during the Depression, when a family earning $15 or $20 a week was considered well off. There were dozens of lower level staff employees. Most of them had children.
Mrs. R. was a unique woman on many fronts, and one of the qualities she had in abundance was multi-tasking and multi-utilizing. Throughout the twelve years of FDR’s presidency, she was an inveterate traveler, logging thousands of air, train and automobile miles for the social programs she supported. She visited dozens of cities and towns hard hit by hard times. Factory towns that went bust. Mining towns where the mines had closed. Prairie farms decimated by the dust bowl.
Wherever she went, she brought a purse full of small change, happy to buy nickel and dime items of local goods. Knowing that people did not want a handout, and knowing that those small items might help provide some relief, she purchased little dolls and toys, baskets, foodstuffs and handicrafts for her Christmas Closet. And it was a real closet at her cottage at Val-Kill. It was filled with goodies for Christmas gifting.
A few weeks prior to Christmas, lists of staff members, their spouses and children, names and ages, was gathered and organized. The little trinkets she had purchased throughout the year were brought to the White House and carefully wrapped in bright holiday paper. There would be something for every child to take home. And there were plenty of extras to handle any surprise guests.
Staff members, dressed in their best clothes, were now honored guests in the place where they worked. They were treated to cake and coffee, punch and cookies, a chance to be personally greeted by the President and receive a small token of appreciation.
It was quintessential Eleanor.
Roosevelt, Eleanor – Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt – Harper & Bros. 1961
Seeley, Mary Evans – Seasons Greetings from the White House: The Collection of Presidential Christmas Cards, Messages and Gifts – 1996, MasterMedia Book