President Benjamin Harrison is credited with starting the tradition of having a Christmas tree inside the White House in 1889 when he set up a tree for his grandchildren. The tree glowed with wax candles, and Harrison even dressed up as Santa Claus. “Let me hope,” the president said, “that my example will be followed by every family in the land.”
A few previous presidents probably had White House Christmas trees. When President Ulysses S. Grant occupied the White House in the 1870s, a “Christmas tree in the East Room bloomed in great glory,” one 19th-century newspaper reported. The tradition has evolved, right up to the 18-foot Fraser fir that will stand in the White House Blue Room this season.
Harrison could have had the first White House Christmas tree with electric lights, after electricity was installed in the presidential mansion in 1891. But he and his wife, Caroline, were so afraid of electric lights that they had servants turn the switches on and off. So President Grover Cleveland had the first White House Christmas tree with electric lights in 1894. The Clevelands then sat down to a Christmas dinner of duck that the president had killed on a recent hunting trip.
White House Christmas trees fell out of favor around the turn of the 20th century. Conservationists denounced cutting down young trees in forests to make Christmas trees, calling it “arboreal infanticide.” Some critics wrote President William McKinley in 1899 urging him to drop the White House “Christmas tree habit.” McKinley did, except for a small tree in the kitchen for the maids.
The policy continued when President Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901 after McKinley was assassinated. An ardent conservationist, Roosevelt banned cut Christmas trees in the White House. But even Teddy had to laugh when, in 1902, his young son Archie secretly set up a small Christmas tree in a White House closet.
In 1912, President William Taft and his wife were away in Panama on Christmas Day. So their children set up a big Christmas tree in the Blue Room to surprise their young cousins at a party on Christmas. The main White House tree has been in the Blue Room almost every year since.
On the evening of Dec. 24, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge pressed a button to light 2,500 red, blue and green lights on the first National Christmas Tree, set up outside on the Ellipse just south of the White House. The 48-foot fir tree had been delivered from Coolidge’s home state of Vermont. Thousands of spectators joined in singing Christmas carols. In then-segregated Washington, African Americans had their own celebration around the tree just after midnight. Coolidge began the tree-lighting tradition at the behest of the Society for Electrical Development, an industry group that hoped to promote wider use of electricity.
President Trump will turn on the lights of the National Christmas Tree on Wednesday night. Among the performers will be the Dominican Sisters of Mary, also known as the Singing Nuns.
In 1929, President Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Henry, began the tradition of the first lady decorating an official White House Christmas tree in the Blue Room. The Hoovers had a blue Christmas that year when a fire broke out in the White House on Christmas Eve during a children’s party. Nobody was hurt, but the West Wing was nearly destroyed. It was the biggest burning of the White House since the British torched the place in 1814.
White House Christmas tree inflation began in 1959 when President Dwight Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, set up a record 29 trees, filling every floor of the White House. President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton eclipsed that record in 1997 with 36. The Clintons caused a bit of a political stir in 1995 by hanging a prizewinning tree decoration provided by an architectural student. The ornament showed two stockings hung by the chimney. One stocking, marked “Bill,” was filled with candy and presents. The other stocking marked “Newt,” for Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, was filled with coal.
In 2009, there were right-wing Internet rumors that President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, were changing the name of White House Christmas trees to “holiday trees.” In 2010, the rumor was that there would be “no Christmas tree in the White House that year. But the Obamas celebrated Christmas with “Christmas trees” during each of the president’s eight years in office.
Since 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association has conducted a national competition to pick the official White House Blue Room Christmas tree. This year’s tree, from North Carolina, was recently delivered to the Trumps at the White House. On Monday, first lady Melania Trump announced that the tree would be decorated with more than 500 feet of blue velvet ribbon embroidered in gold with the names of each state and territory.
Overshadowing the Blue Room this year is Melania Trump’s choice for the Grand Foyer and Cross Hall, which will be lined with 29 red trees “festooned with 14,000 red ornaments.” That’s a long way from the little tree that Harrison put up for his grandchildren in 1889.
Ronald G. Shafer is a former Washington political features editor at the Wall Street Journal.