White House Christmases: mistletoe and chain saws

AP News
Posted: Dec 09, 2009 1:06 PM

Scenes from White House Christmases past, as recounted in the book "Christmas at the White House," by Jennifer B. Pickens:


The first known Christmas tree at the White House was in the tenure of Benjamin Harrison, who helped trim one in the upstairs library with friends, family and staff. "We shall have an old-fashioned Christmas tree for the grandchildren upstairs and I shall be their Santa Claus myself," Harrison exclaimed.


Conservationist Theodore Roosevelt resisted the idea of chopping down a Christmas tree as a waste of resources. His children sneaked one into the White House and decorated it anyway. Roosevelt eventually lifted his ban.


Mamie Eisenhower was Roosevelt's opposite: She set a long-standing record of 26 Christmas trees in the White House _ including one in the laundry room.


Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of a theme for White House Christmases when she chose to decorate a tree in the Blue Room with items evoking Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite." There were 10 other trees on the main floor of the White House _ all but two of them undecorated _ and several more upstairs in the family quarters. The White House grounds superintendent thought it a "massive" number of trees compared to the one or two requested by most previous administrations.


After John F. Kennedy's assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, a month of mourning was declared. On the evening of Dec. 22, new President Lyndon Johnson lit the National Christmas Tree behind the White House. The next morning, the black mourning crepe that had been draped over doorways and chandeliers in the White House was replaced with holly, wreaths and mistletoe. Lady Bird Johnson later wrote, "I walked the well-lit hall for the first time with the sense that life was going to go on, that we as a country were going to begin again."


In 1977, a surprise gift arrived for 10-year-old Amy Carter _ a red, white and blue chain saw. A young friend of Amy's had reported that the first daughter wanted a chain saw for Christmas because "she likes the way they work." A White House spokeswoman later clarified, "I think Amy might have said 'train set,' not 'chain saw.'" Nonetheless, more chain saws arrived.


President Ronald Reagan caught Nancy Reagan under the "kissing ball" of mistletoe that hung in the Grand Foyer in 1981. But Reagan's allergies couldn't handle some of the other floral arrangements, and the plants had to be exiled to spots in the White House that the president rarely visited.

What Is John Brennan Hiding?
Sheriff David Clarke (Ret.)


... Barbara Bush? In 1991, a needlepoint club, White House staff and volunteers, made 1,370 needlepoint ornaments, some of which had a resemblance to the first lady. One six-inch angel, for example, was wearing a three-stranded pearl necklace. Mrs. Bush joked to reporters, "There are a lot of white-haired, fat, pearled ones."


The 1993 White House gingerbread house was dubbed the "House of Socks," in honor of the Clintons' cat. Pastry chef Roland Mesnier outfitted the gingerbread house with 21 marzipan figures of Socks in various poses, including the cat hauling Santa's sleigh, ice-skating, playing a "Soxaphone," and posing as a Secret Service agent.


With public access to the White House more restricted in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, first lady Laura Bush sent the family's terrier, Barney, out to prowl the building with a little camera attached to his collar in 2002. Barney Cam's 4.5-minute video tour of the mansion decorations got 24 million views in its first day on the White House Web site and his movies became an annual feature after that.



"Christmas at the White House," by Jennifer B. Pickens, published in 2009 by Fife & Drum Press.