Among first couples, President and Nancy Reagan win hands down when it comes to giving unusual Christmas presents to each other. The chain saws, pickup trucks and manure spreaders used at their Rancho del Cielo property in the mountains are a far cry from the founding first couples' gifts.
In 1789, that very first presidential Christmas, George Washington paid 16 pounds for a fashionable set of seed pearl pins and earrings for Martha. Evidently, George held all the purse strings in the family, for he ended up buying his own present to himself. He bought fur cloaks for both Martha and himself, shelling out 42 pounds, 16 shillings at steep New York (the first capital of the United States) prices. And Martha was not the kind of lady who wanted manure spreaders for Mount Vernon under her tree. In 1792, during her first Christmas in Philadelphia (the second capital of the United States), "Lady Washington" wore her husband's gift of a new black velvet gown purchased for 40 pounds.
Second President John Adams' Christmas gifts to his wife Abigail were more esoteric. At her specific request one year, he bought Lady Craven's "A Journey to Constantinople," "Bennett's Stricture on Female Education" and "Letters to a Young Lady."
Cold winds chilled the damp, unfinished rooms of the new White House in 1800, when the Adamses became the first first family to celebrate Christmas in Washington. Abigail -- depressed by her husband's defeat for reelection and the terminal condition of an alcoholic son -- pulled herself together to host the first Christmas reception for congressmen and those few wives who had come to the permanent national capital.
James and Dolley Madison had their own depressing holiday in Washington, though not in the White House. Christmas 1814 was celebrated in the Octagon House by the Madisons, since four months earlier the White House had been burned by the British during the War of 1812. The buoyant Dolley Madison was in unusually low spirits since her son Payne, sister Lucy and brother John never arrived. With no knowledge of when the war would end, lacking expected family members and, now, a first lady without a White House, it was a miserable holiday season for her. Little did the Madisons know that on Christmas Eve the Treaty of Ghent had been signed in Belgium, ending the war. They would not know until February.
That next Christmas, spent in another temporary White House by the Madisons, was a joyous one. On Christmas Eve 1815, guns and cannons were fired throughout the city. Dolley was entertaining Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Williams Crowninshield and his family and letting her parrot fly about freely. It was, said Mary Crowninshield, "quite a frolic," but she also noticed that the first lady served her famous "ice cream put in a silver dish, and a large cake -- not very good . . . [on] saucers instead of plates."
As a widower with no children of his own, President Andrew Jackson's Christmases, ironically, revolved around young children.
On Dec. 19, 1835, he hosted the first White House Christmas party exclusively for children of prominent Washingtonians. Jackson's devotion to his countless grandnieces and grandnephews was complete, and as a man with a famous temper, his expectations of others to have equal devotion to them was usually met. Consequently, one of the most vivid memories of the day was the sight of Vice President -- and presidential aspirant -- Martin Van Buren standing on one leg, singing a childish ditty and then running across the room, gobbling as a turkey, under the approving eye of Old Hickory.
Christmas was perhaps the most emotional time of the year for Jackson. In 1829, just prior to his leaving for Washington and the presidency, his wife Rachel died tragically and was buried on Christmas Eve.
Mary Emily Donelson, a Jackson grandniece, remembered the president taking the little ones to a Washington orphanage to distribute gifts. When another child asked Jackson what toys Santa Claus would bring him, the president somberly told them a story.
"I once knew a little boy who not only never had a toy in his life, but after the death of his mother, a pure and saintly woman, had neither home nor friends."
Unknown to the children, Jackson was sadly reflecting upon his own childhood.
Evidently, fine dining was Julia Gardiner Tyler's priority during her one and only White House Christmas in 1844. Her witty New York debutante sister Margaret Gardiner, serving as the first, though unofficial, social secretary of the White House, took care of arranging the mansion for the season. Gardiner had the rooms of the state floors laden with evergreen wreaths, and even the stately Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington was framed in boughs of greenery. Margaret's record of the day speaks revealingly: "We commenced the day with Egg Nog and concluded with Apple Toddy."
Nobody ever accused the James Polks of being wild hosts. Christmas Eve 1847 lacked "cheer" in more ways than one. While the president could be found bowing to guests before a blazing fire, "the better half was seated," wrote one lonely visitor "engaged in lively conversation . . . Sarah Polk is shrewd and sensible." Christmas Eve fell on one of the Polks' regular open house reception nights, and an unusual assortment of remaining statesmen wandered the empty rooms, including a wealthy Wall Street financier, a few congressmen and naval officers and several deaf women speaking in sign language. The "shrewd and sensible" Sarah was not, however, about to break her rules just because it was a holiday. No refreshments were served.
Children again played a central role in White House Christmases during the Taylor, Lincoln, Johnson and Grant administrations. During the Hayes years, the president's wife invited the two teen-age daughters of a family friend, John Herron, to stay at the White House. So impressed was the eldest girl, Helen, of her 1878 stay, that she vowed to return to the house as first lady herself someday. She did in 1909, as Mrs. William Howard Taft.
Toward the end of the 19th century, White House families began extending their Christmases into the cold homes of the local poor. The Christmas Clubs of Washington, formed in the 1800s, provided hot dinners for more than 2,000 local needy children. Among its founders was Nellie Arthur, the young daughter of President Chester Alan Arthur.
Frances Cleveland, wife of Arthur's successor, Grover Cleveland, took particular interest in "The Colored Club," established specifically for the city's black children. Frances Cleveland, "with the badge of the Christmas Club gleaming white on her fur-trimmed garnet coat," wrote one reporter, "helped distribute the toys and candy from the sparking Christmas tree" and took in the postdinner Punch-and-Judy shows.
A Christmas tree in the White House did not appear until 1889. That year, Benjamin and Caroline Harrison -- grandparents of four toddlers -- started that since-unbroken yuletide tradition.
Days before Christmas the Harrison grandchildren scampered throughout the house with secrets, messages and questions about Santa Claus and expected gifts. Suddenly, in the late afternoon of Christmas Eve, they found the doors of the oval library and family room locked shut. They hovered around trying to figure out what was going on. After dinner the curious were sent off to bed. Meanwhile the head gardener, several of his assistants and President Harrison himself were busily securing and decorating the first White House Christmas tree.
For Ida McKinley, diamonds were a first lady's best friend, as the New York jewelry firm J. Dreicer & Sons was very happy to report: That past June, on her birthday, the president gave her two diamond rings; Christmas 1898 was two diamond bracelets; the yuletide before that it was a pair of diamond side combs. In 1899, Mrs. McKinley insisted he not buy anything expensive.
It was a White House steward, William Sinclair, who saved the day by heading down to Galt's jewelry store and coming back with a beautiful vase and a delicate miniature blue picture frame, set with jewels, in which the president placed a photograph of their deceased child Katie, born on Christmas Day. McKinley considered the day to be a solemn holiday.
The Theodore Roosevelts' Christmas was anything but solemn. Their first Christmas included the hanging of stockings over the mantelpiece and a dinner for a large crowd of friends and family.
Initially the conservation-minded president was opposed to his children having a Christmas tree, but the ingenious Roosevelt children smuggled a small one upstairs. Finally, Gifford Pinchot, the U.S. chief forester, explained to the president that selective cutting of trees actually helped others in the forest grow stronger.
The Roosevelts' last Christmas was filled with mirth. Edith Roosevelt, the first lady, invited more than 50 to dinner where the table decorations were green ferns and red leaves. Everyone at the table found a tissue paper booty that popped, revealing a party hat for the guests to wear. Dinner was turkey courtesy of Horace Vose, "The Turkey King," who provided presidential birds since Grant's years. Dessert of flaming plum puddings and miniature Santa Claus ices ended the meal.
Perhaps one of the most memorable presidential Christmases was celebrated in 1918 when Woodrow Wilson and his wife Edith were in France for the peace conference following World War I. On Christmas Eve day, the president and first lady shopped the streets of Paris, stopping at Brentano's bookstore and Perrine's, a couturier. At a flower market they paused to watch mistletoe being painted gold. On Christmas Eve, they traveled by train to Gen. John Pershing's Chaumont headquarters, where they planned to spend the holiday with the troops.
They were met by Pershing in the early morning and driven in his Cadillac to the troops' post. As a light snow fell, the Wilsons trampled through ankle-deep mud to the open field where the review stand was built. The New York Fifth Division made the first lady an honorary member of the division, giving her their blue-and-gold insignia pin with the Goddess of Liberty on a blue field.
Florence Harding was given the most political and unusual of Christmas gifts from her husband Warren in 1921 -- the privilege of choosing which prisoners in federal penitentiaries would be pardoned that Christmas.
That same year, she became alarmed at what security considered a routine threat to the president, marked for Christmas Day. Frantically, she called her confidant Evalyn Walsh McLean and asked if they could spend the holiday with the McLeans at their mansion.
After church services, the Hardings arrived at the McLeans', admiring their three-story Christmas tree. The first lady made sure there were Secret Service agents scattered throughout the house and outside, while the president laughed it off. After dinner, the president played poker with chums in a hideaway room upstairs while Evalyn and Florence watched a private showing of "Little Lord Fauntleroy," hearing the laughter of the men every so often.
"Suddenly, somewhere in the house," wrote Evalyn McLean, "there was a loud crashing. Mrs. Harding half-screamed and almost slid from her chair . . . A servant came . . . and apologized because a door had been slammed." Finally departing at 2 a.m., the president thanked McLean, saying, "I am grateful to my assassins for a very pleasant Christmas." Beneath his laughter, however, there was sadness. When Charlie Forbes, a friend and political appointee, ran into the Hardings' doctor in the White House Christmas week, he was told, "They had a hell of a row this morning." The Hardings were fighting again. Later, admitting to Forbes that the presidency was too much for him to handle, President Harding quietly cried.
The energetic Grace Coolidge infused the White House with a bright spirit during her first Christmas there in 1923. In the Blue Room she had a large Vermont spruce displayed for the public. Later she hosted a dance for 60 young men of Mercersburg Academy (where her son attended school), dancing with each one of them. She distributed gifts at a large number of social service organizations, joined the president in his annual Christmas message to the nation and started a new White House yuletide tradition -- caroling for the public.
Lou Hoover, president of the Girl Scouts, continued that tradition but let her scouts do it sans first lady. One "scout," however, was paying extra attention to Lou and her husband, President Herbert Hoover. Reporter Bess Furman had secretly penetrated the White House Christmas Eve party by disguising herself as an overgrown Girl Scout and entered unnoticed as a caroler. Furman made note of the Hoover tradition of each child escorting an adult into the State Dining Room. After dinner at a horseshoe-shaped table with an oversized centerpiece of Santa, reindeer and sleigh, the Hoovers led the group -- men holding candles, women ringing bells -- up the darkened staircase to a surprise finale . . . a moving picture show.
Eleanor Roosevelt was Mrs. Santa Claus.
Every single member of the White House staff -- from police officer to florist, doorman to plumber -- received a personal gift from the hands of ER. In a large room on the third floor, she stored the hundreds of gifts that she accumulated throughout the year.
Throughout Christmas Eve day, the first lady buzzed around Washington, making rounds at dozens of charitable organizations, passing out food baskets. Getting back to the White House in time for her annual dance for young people, she relaxed until 5 p.m. when she joined President Franklin Roosevelt in lighting the tree and stood by as he broadcast his Christmas message to the nation. Then FDR gathered the family around and read with great drama Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." When that was over, she raced across town for St. Thomas' midnight service.
Certainly the most moving Roosevelt Christmas was that of 1941, just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Winston Churchill, having arrived secretly in Washington and staying at the White House, delivered a joint radio address to the nation with the president.
"Let the children have their night of fun and laughter," he said. "Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their hearts. Let us share in their unstinted pleasure before we turn again to the stern tasks in the year that lies before us."
As her first White House Christmas approached, Mamie Eisenhower exclaimed with joy, "Well, I've done it! It's been my desire, all my life, to be able to give a Christmas gift to everybody who works for me!" The first lady invited all the White House employes, in small groups, upstairs to the family tree where she gave out gifts for each. When Mamie became overwhelmed with requests for gifts from poorer American families, she directed her staff to take toys and other presents from a gift room where items sent to the Eisenhower grandchildren were accumulated.
Mamie also loved decorating -- not just the East Room and outside walls as had been done in the past but the entire house. She blitzkrieged Washington stores searching for baubles on sale, and hung holly on chandeliers; oversized red bows, green roping and white branches on the hall columns; wreaths on candelabra. An aficionada of piped-in sound effects (one spring she had bird trillings piped through the house, admonishing the staff to "Turn up those birds!"), Mamie Eisenhower had "prerecorded Christmas carols blasted from beneath an otherwise harmless tree in the East Room," remembered former Chief Usher J.B. West in 1980. She also had a record number of Christmas trees: 26 in 1959.
Barbara Eisenhower, the president's daughter-in-law, recalls that the most unusual items of the season were glass ornaments given to the family by Nikita Khrushchev for their family tree. "Here was a Communist acknowledging a Christian holiday," Barbara said. "But there were space rocket designs on one of them. Maybe he was trying to say, 'Merry Christmas, but we're still ahead in the space program.' "
The Secret Service men had become, by the early '60s, part of the first families' permanent entourage. After her first Christmas in Palm Beach, Fla., as first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy noticed that the men who accompanied her family to Florida had to spend their holidays without their families. Thereafter, she insisted agents bring their wives. During her second Christmas as first lady, in 1962, just before leaving for Palm Beach, Jacqueline Kennedy sent a brilliantly illuminated tree to King Saud of Saudi Arabia, who was then ill in an American hospital. In a note she wrote that though she of course knew his religion didn't celebrate Christmas, it was intended to brighten his spirit with the spirit of the season.
Besides installing a delicate 18th-century Neopolitan cre che, Jacqueline Kennedy was the first president's wife to have a "theme" tree. The balsam fir she had placed in the Blue Room was trimmed with ornaments representing scenes from Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" ballet, complete with sugarplum fairies and toy soldiers.
The Lyndon Johnsons' last Christmas in Washington in 1968 was both a joyous and sad time. On impulse, Lady Bird Johnson organized a large party of old Washington friends, making most of the calls herself, remembering that "all the fires were burning, and the spirit of Christmas and real joy was as strong as I have ever felt it."
After the guests left, the Johnson family gathered in the yellow Oval Room -- the very room where for decades White House families gathered for Christmas when it was the family library -- and began opening gifts. Lynda Johnson Robb immediately put on her gift from her father, a dress. "As soon as he gives you something," Lady Bird Johnson wrote, "he can't wait for you to wear it."
The family also placed a call to Pat Nugent and Chuck Robb, their sons-in-law in Vietnam, "somewhere near Da Nang," recorded the first lady. And, as Lady Bird Johnson described the day's end, "We had an early bedtime, wrapped in that warming sense of family and Christmas and the hope of better days to come."
The Nixons decorated their family tree themselves, and with ornaments that had been in the family for many years. Staff members recall seeing Pat Nixon digging into the boxes, choosing the items, reminiscing a bit about when they were used and placing them on the branches. She also started the tradition of trying to obtain something from past White House Christmases to be displayed for the public. One year she had a Victorian doll house, borrowed from the Rutherford Hayes home in Ohio, which had been given to Fanny Hayes as a Christmas present when she was in the White House.
Gerald Ford's family continued their Christmas tradition by spending the day in Vail, Colo., skiing. During their White House tenure, however, the holiday season, according to son Jack, was "the most active, gayest and happiest times in the house, when everybody -- everybody -- who came there put political differences aside."
Though the family decorations were kept in Colorado, all the Fords took a particular interest in the national Christmas tree. "The highlight of the season," he recalls, "was always who was going to turn the lights on. Susan did it one year. Mom and Dad did it another year. I never got to."
As Secret Service agents, the press corps, White House staff and military escorts all accompanied the Fords to their first Vail Christmas as the first family, Jack Ford remembers how everyone in 1974 was ready to become expert at skiing. "As the days went on, I saw less and less of them on the slopes and more and more of them in the taverns. By the end of the trip only two or three remained skiers."
Although they never spent Christmas day in the White House, preferring to gather in Plains, the entire Carter clan -- four generations, from Miss Lillian to the president's grandchildren -- used to come up from Georgia for other parts of the holiday season.
The Cabinet dinner was revived, and the annual congressional Christmas party was turned into a formal ball with Peter Duchin conducting his band. In 1977, Amy Carter performed for guests with her violin class -- a first for a first daughter.
The 1979 state dinner for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, held amid the Christmas decorations, was a holiday highlight from the Carter years, but the most interesting was the 1980 staff party.
Held on the South Lawn, snow machines churned out the white stuff for a snowman contest. The smell of roasting chestnuts filled the air as hot chocolate and mulled cider were served to the guests.
"But that evening was most special," remembers Gretchen Poston, White House social secretary. "We had an ice rink made on stage and Peggy Fleming skated."
The first White House Christmas fireworks display closed the evening. "The end was spectacular," Poston recalls. "It was a huge Christmas card saying, 'Merry Christmas, Jimmy and Rosalynn.' "