A “traditional” Christmas tree, one that is brought indoors and decorated, is a German custom.
The Early Trees
While a Christmas tree of sorts has been around since pagan times, beginning in the early nineteenth century, it became a popular German tradition to cut an evergreen tree of some kind, bring it indoors and decorate it with fruits and pine cones and berries. In time, handcrafted toys and ornaments of varying types and materials were added, and despite the fire hazard, lighted candles were added as well.
The custom truly began to take hold shortly after Queen Victoria of England married her cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. He had fondly remembered the Christmas tree, hitherto little known in England, and installed one at Windsor Castle. By the end of the 1840s, when an illustration of the Queen’s Christmas Tree at Windsor appeared in the London News, the tradition took off like gangbusters.
The Early Presidential Trees
It gets a little fuzzy trying to pinpoint which sitting President had the very first Christmas tree. There is some indication that President John Tyler had one in the early 1840s, but that may be a stretch. There is some less-stretchy indication that President Franklin Pierce had a Christmas tree in his private quarters of the White House in 1853 or 54. The custom had become fairly popular by then, and legend has it that First Lady Jane Pierce had been so devastated by the tragic death of their eleven-year-old son, that the President installed the tree to “cheer her up.” Maybe. But it is still a nice story.
The first real documented Christmas tree installed upstairs in the White House was during President Benjamin Harrison’s administration. Even then, the exact year is iffy. It is said that the President’s little grandchildren were thrilled!
After that, there is a long gap for varying reasons, mostly since Christmas was considered a family (private) holiday, and sometimes included the First Family being out of town for the holidays. The next indication of a public Christmas tree inside the White House is not until the Hoover Administration in 1929, at which time electric lights were used. After that, Christmas trees were again contained in the private (family) rooms of the White House until the Kennedy Administration. And after that, it became a national Blue Room tradition, with a life of its own.
Every First Lady from Jacqueline Kennedy until the present, selects a “theme” for the decorations, and “donated” items come from all over the country – whether they are creations by school children or professional artists and craftsmen. A dozen states vie for the “honor” of supplying the tree (or trees) to the White House. Turning on the White House Christmas tree even becomes a reason for a television special.
President Coolidge and the National Christmas Tree Tradition
There is a huge living fir tree on the White House Ellipse (replaced on a couple of occasions as needed), assigned as the National Christmas Tree for more than half a century.
It is a little known fact that the “official” decorated tree began as a Community Christmas Tree, encouraged by the Washington DC Community Center Department and the DC Public Schools. According to the National Park Service, Lucretia Walker Hardy, the acting Director of the Community Center Department, wrote to President Coolidge’s secretary, asking that the Community tree be located on White House grounds. She wrote “It seems that the use of the White House grounds for this Christmas Tree will give the sentiment and the exercises a national character.”
Coincidental to that event, Thomas Ormsbee, of the Society for Electrical Development, was also contacting the White House for a similar project – only his purpose was to advance the use of electric lights on Christmas trees.
Interestingly enough, the first tree was not a “live” tree, but a “cut” tree, given as a gift by Paul Moody, the president of Middlebury, College in Vermont, President Coolidge’s home state. With a little gentle lobbying by Vermont Senator Frank L. Greene, the matter was escalated.
It was 1923, and President and Mrs. Coolidge were the White House occupants, having inherited the office when President Harding died some months earlier. When the President’s secretary took the Christmas Tree “request” to the First Family, Mrs. Coolidge announced that she had already approved a caroling event on White House grounds, and only wanted one event held inside the gated area. As an alternative, she suggested the Ellipse be used, and there it was placed, and electrified by Coolidge.
The following year, the “ceremony” was moved to Sherman Park, near the East Gate of the White House. It was the first time a “living” tree, a Norway Spruce, was used as the National Tree, a donation from the American Forestry Service. On December 24, 1924, in a very brief ceremony, President Coolidge became the first President to “officially” press a button lighting the red-white-and-green electric lights. Although the event was conceived and promoted as the National Community Christmas Tree, the program listed it as the “National Christmas Tree” for the first time.
By 1925, lighting the National Christmas Tree (despite whatever formal names it was given) became a major event. Congressmen and cabinet members attended the ceremony, along with hundreds of Washingtonians, including school children. The US Marine Band performed, it was carried live on the radio, and the program ended with The Star Spangled Banner.
The venue remained in Sherman Park for the next ten years. Then, due to landscaping changes on the grounds, the tree-site was moved to Lafayette Park, where it remained as the location until it was moved back to the Ellipse during the Eisenhower Administration.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The White House: An Historic Guide – White House Historical Assn. – 1973