Children dance around a maypole at the White House Easter Egg Roll, circa 1930. (Library of Congress)

Every year, the president of the United States invites children and their families to roll eggs in the back yard of the White House on Easter Monday. That might sound like an unusual tradition for the president’s home, but it has taken place there since 1878.

The roll had started years earlier on the U.S. Capitol grounds, but President Rutherford B. Hayes allowed it to move to the White House after it was banned from the Capitol to protect the grounds from damage.

Hayes was out walking with his children when a young boy said to him: “Say! Say! Are you going to let us roll eggs in your yard?” The request surprised him, because he had not been familiar with the event, but he good-naturedly told the White House grounds officers that the children should be allowed to continue the egg roll tradition on the South Lawn.

In the past, the main event of the day was rolling dyed, hard-boiled eggs across the grass to see whose egg would go the farthest before cracking. Egg toss-and-catch and egg croquet also were popular games, but after a few days, the strong odor of all the broken eggs could be smelled miles away.

First lady Lou Hoover hoped to end the horrible smell in 1929 when she introduced folk dancing as an alternate activity. That idea took hold until first lady Pat Nixon in 1973 added an Easter egg hunt using real eggs, and the smell of the rotten, undiscovered eggs reminded people why Hoover had preferred folk dancing. After that first (and last) egg hunt, the Nixons added egg roll races, which have since become an Easter Monday favorite.

Warren Sonnemann took home the prize basket for winning the Easter Egg Roll in 1923. (Library of Congress)

Eggs are not the only attraction at the Easter Egg Roll. Many White House pets have made appearances, including President Warren G. Harding’s dog Laddie Boy; first lady Grace Coolidge’s raccoon, Rebecca; various pet rabbits; and even a 1,200-pound steer brought in by President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, for a petting zoo.

Music by the U.S. Marine Band is also a highlight, a tradition started in 1889 by President Benjamin Harrison.

Today, even more exciting and creative events have been added. Celebrities read stories, athletes give hands-on training, chefs demonstrate how to prepare fun and healthful meals, and guests get to do science “eggsperiments” and crafts. The tradition that once was barely known has become the largest annual public event at the White House, with more than 35,000 people expected this year.

McLaurin is president of the White House Historical Association.