First Christmas Trees in the White House

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Pierce’s 1856 Christmas tree in the White House was put up for the enjoyment of the Sunday School students from the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington.

On that day President Pierce “passed out gifts around [the tree] to the children,” according to the book We Were Marching on Christmas Day (shortened title) by Kevin Rawlings. Sadly, even though Pierce and his wife Jane had had three sons,all died in childhood, never seeing their father become president. Their last son Benny was killed in a train accident in January 1853.

Christmas Tree During Benjamin Harrison’s Administration

The first Christmas tree put up for the joy of a president’s immediate family was in 1889 during the administration of Benjamin Harrison. Among the really young Harrison relatives present were the two children of his daughter Mary and her husband James Robert McKee and the daughter of his son Russell and his wife. Also present, according to longtime White House employee William H. Crook, were Mrs. Mary Scott Dimmick, Mrs. Harrison’s niece, and the Reverend Dr. Scott, Mrs. Harrison’s father.

President Harrison called on Henry Pfister, the White House’s head gardener, to put up the tree. On Christmas Eve afternoon all children were barred from the combination family room and library on the second floor. Pfister and his staff went to work creating a tree thick with decorations and token gifts for the First Family’s younger members and for members of the White House office staff as well. Late on Christmas Eve, President Harrison himself pitched in to help decorate. The room in which the tree stood was adorned with holly, ferns and mistletoe, according to an article on the White House Historical Association’s website

First – Hand Description of the Harrison Christmas Tree

Crook saw the tree. (He worked without interruption for 12 presidents beginning with Lincoln as a bodyguard. Later he became chief clerk at the White House. Woodrow Wilson was the last president he served.) Writing in his book Memories of the White House (shortened title), Crook said that the Harrison tree was “truly the most beautiful I have ever seen, before or since.” He further explained: “From topmost point to the floor it was laden with decorations, with toys innumerable for the children, and with gifts for the older ones.” The tree aside, Crook noted that in the library were “scores if not hundreds” of gifts from strangers for the Harrisons.

Interestingly, Crook wrote in his book that Benjamin Harrison was the first president to have a tree in the White House, never mentioning Pierce. But, of course, Pierce was president before Crook even became an employee at the White House in 1864. The White House Historical Association on its website said that Harrison was the first president to have a tree indoors, implying that the Pierce tree was outdoors. This writer found no other reference stating that the Peirce tree was displayed outdoors.

Theodore Roosevelt Against Live Christmas Trees

Beginning with the Harrisons, it became customary to have a Christmas tree in the White House. However, the tradition did not sit well with ardent conservationist Theodore Roosevelt, who was president from September 1901 to March 1909. He thought that the cutting down of trees for use at Christmas led to deforestation.

Though Roosevelt forbade Christmas trees in the White House, one Christmas two of his son secretly brought in a tree and hid it in a closet. Division of Forestry chief Gifford Pinchot, a dedicated conservationist and Roosevelt confidant, defended the cutting down of trees for Christmas. Pinchot argued that doing so helped thin the forests. Roosevelt was not won over.

After that first Christmas tree made its way into the Roosevelt White House, the president let his son Archie put up a holiday tree annually in his room. However, the White House tried to keep this fact from appearing in the newspapers.

Sources:

  1. Crook, William H. Memories of the White House: The Home Life of Our Presidents From Lincoln to Roosevelt. Edited and Compiled by Henry Rood. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1911.
  2. Snyder, Phillip V. The Christmas Tree Book: The History of the Christmas Tree and Antique Christmas Tree Ornaments. New York: Viking Press. 1976.
  3. “2008 White House Christmas Ornament Historical Essay: Benjamin Harrison (1883-1901).” White House Historical Association.
  4. “Franklin Pierce.” POTUS (Presidents of the United States). 8 November 2009.
  5. Pease, Glenn. “Christmas Stuff Based on Luke 2″. Scribd. 9 November 2009″Christmas Tree: The Children of New York Avenue Church and the First White House Christmas Tree.” New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.
  6. “Col. W. H. Crook Dead. Lincoln Bodyguard and Disbursing Officer of the White House.” New York Times. March 14, 1915.
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