We discussed the origins of the National Christmas Tree in our podcast Monday, and I learned that Jeremy has much more experience with the tree lighting ceremonies and the Pathways of Peace. Our discussion inspired me to look into the National Christmas Tree Association. It is their tradition, begun in 1966, that the grand-champion grower would present his/her tree to the President and First Lady for display in the Blue Room. The first was a grower in Wisconsin, but Dan and Bryan Trees (formerly Sundback Trees) of West Virginia, have been selected a record four times! I hope to talk Roger into a field trip to their farm sometime this year.
According to the National Christmas Association, in 1901, the first Christmas tree farm was established in New Jersey by W. V. MacGalliard. When the trees reached maturity eight years later, trees were sold for $1.00 each. (I wonder how much money this is in 2012?) Strangely, in 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt, tried to discourage Americans from choosing live trees because of the potential threat to American forests. Conservationist Gifford Pinchot persuaded the president that, done properly, raising Christmas trees was not harmful.
Teddy Roosevelt’s distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, started a Christmas Tree farm on his estate in Hyde Park, New York in the 1930’s. He even listed his occupation as “tree farmer.” Some skeptics claim that this was a strategy to create the aura that Roosevelt was gentleman farmer, and, therefore, more electable; however, Christmas tree profits are listed on Roosevelt Library documents, and he planned to continue tree farming in his retirement after the presidency. According to the National Park Service, Roosevelt was “so proud of his Christmas trees that he once sent one to the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.”
2011 Gingerbread White House
Creating a structure from gingerbread and other foods is a special
2002 Gingerbread White House
challenge. I tried my hand at this craft for the first time as an adult this past Christmas. Wow! It can become all consuming and very addictive. The attention to every little detail and trying to capture just the right look. The White House staff has been taking part in this type of challenge every year since the White House chef started the tradition under President Carter. For the holidays a special gingerbread house is showcased in the White House State Dining Room. The staff can spend up to five months designing, preparing and creating the masterpiece. The 2011 gingerbread house was a true to life recreation of the Presidential mansion and featured white chocolate and a view of the state dining room. The theme of “Shine, Give, Share” was used to show the countless ways we all can lift up those around us. The houses do not always result in a house that looks like a model miniature of the real thing. Sometimes it is a more fanciful recreation with gum drops and candies. These look more fun to make for sure! There are many sites with pictures of the houses. Check out some of the houses through the years- White House Photos. The official White House website has a very interesting short video on the making of the 2009 White House Gingerbread House.
The 2011 National Christmas Tree
1923 National Community Christmas Tree
The National Tree– Click to hear this week’s podcast.
This week we have been all about the President and anything Christmas that might be associated. We briefly talk about our week of posts and then dive right into the National Christmas Tree. This is THE tree that the President, or his designee, has lit each Christmas since 1923 (brief break 1942-1944 for World War II). We discuss the ornaments, the electric, the set-up, the ceremony, ticket lotteries, and even the trees themselves. You can do your own in-depth research at the tree’s website- The National Tree. If you just want to see some key points there is a simple timeline at National Tree Timeline. We are so into this presidential Christmas information you can expect even more this week!
First White House Ornament- 1981
Each year since 1981 the White House Historical Association has produced and sold the official White House Christmas Ornaments. The ornament program was created to help raise funds for the association and its work for preservation and education of White House History. The 1981 ornament was a simple brass ornament modeled after weather vanes from the colonial period. President and Mrs. Reagan began the tradition of hanging the ornament on the tree in the Blue Room at the White House. The ornaments initially were simple designs made of brass. Over the years the ornaments grew more elaborate, adding color and more intricate patterns and details. All come in an official WHHA box and include a small booklet with the history connected to the theme of that year’s ornament. The ornaments have become must-have items for many collectors.
2011 White House Ornament
The 2011 ornament celebrates the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Christmas was a very important holiday for the Roosevelt family. The President and First Lady insisted the day be focused on family and official business was put aside for the day. The family celebrations included family meals for breakfast and dinner with great sweets and even ice cream for the children. The family always included a carriage or sleigh ride as part of their Christmas day activities. The children found stockings full of treats and larger gifts waiting for them when they awoke. What was different for the Roosevelt family was the lack of a Christmas tree. The President did not have any tress in the WHite House due to his strong conservationist beliefs. The children enjoyed the tree at a nearby aunt’s home most years. His son Archie did rebel a little and put up his own secret tree in his closet one year. Read more about the Roosevelts at the 2011 Ornament Page. The White House ornaments could make the perfect annual gift for someone on your list. You can still purchase a 2011 ornament for your very own for $17.95. If you want to catch-up, all 31 ornaments are available as a set for just $359.95.
As our President’s Day celebration continues, this is a shout out to all dog-lovers. I visited the Newseum this fall, and, more than anything, I was captivated by the First Dogs: American Presidents and Their Pets. While it appears that no president has had the good sense to own an Australian Shepherd, the Obama family made Bo, their Portuguese Water dog, the center of the White House decorations in 2011. The black and white dog, re-created in marzipan, licorice and marshmallows, felt, and, even garbage bags, guarded almost every room.
Bo assembled from trash bags.
Our friend Gini, who receives only a token photograph of our dogs each Christmas, has something in store for 2012. I can wait to start designing our Blue Christmas (and Peso) replicas!
Lighting of the National Christmas Tree, 12/24/41
Times of war and difficulty do not hold for Christmas. Our Presidents know this better than many. Many Christmases in the 20th century saw the US at war with other nations, our troops fighting or preparing for battle. Christmas 1941 was one of these challenging Christmases. The US had only weeks earlier been attacked by the empire of Japan at Pearl Harbor. Americans all prepared for war. Citizens closely listened to the words from President Roosevelt. His words rallied a nation to service to become what many call the “greatest generation”. Christmas Eve 1941 was a night of inspiring words from our President. FDR made his speech from the south portico of the WHite House following the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. His opening words captured the moment well:
“Fellow workers for freedom: There are many men and women in America- sincere and faithful men and women—who are asking themselves this Christmas:
How can we light our trees? How can we give our gifts? How can we meet and worship with love and with uplifted spirit and heart in a world at war, a world of fighting and suffering and death? How can we pause, even for a day, even for Christmas Day, in our urgent labor of arming a decent humanity against the enemies which beset it? How can we put the world aside, as men and women put the world aside in peaceful years, to rejoice in the birth of Christ? These are natural—inevitable—questions in every part of the world which is resisting the evil thing. And even as we ask these questions, we know the answer. There is another preparation demanded of this Nation beyond and beside the preparation of weapons and materials of war. There is demanded also of us the preparation of our hearts; the arming of our hearts. And when we make ready our hearts for the labor and the suffering and the ultimate victory which lie ahead, then we observe Christmas Day—with all of its memories and all of its meanings—as we should.”
Roosevelt concluded his remarks and then introduced his surprise guest to share remarks with the American people. Winston Churchill had arrived in Washington just weeks after Pearl Harbor for secret meetings with FDR, code-named “Arcadia”. Today we know the meeting as the First Washington Conference. Churchill was staying at the White House and joined FDR for the tree lighting ceremony. His visit was wildly popular with the Americans, other than Mrs. Roosevelt- she found her guest to be a but much, to say the least! Churchill echoed the ideas shared by the President. “Let the children have their night of fun and laughter… Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.” Take a moment and watch the recording from that night- Tree Lighting 1941. It is truly remarkable how the magic of Christmas serves to unite people, families, and even a nation in times of trouble.
Not all Presidential Christmas memories are ones of pageantry, decorations, beauty and tradition. Many of our presidents have found Christmas to be a difficult and challenging time in their lives and/or their presidency. You need only look back to the earliest days of the United States to find proof of this with General George Washington.
Christmas night 1776. The colonial troops were not faring well. General Washington was planning a night crossing over the Delaware River into New Jersey to launch a surprise attack on the Hessian troops amasses in Trenton. The challenge of his plan was incredible. Over 2000 men, munitions, and limited supplies to get across the river undetected. To make the difficult near impossible the conditions quickly changes from a cold rain to sleet to near blizzard, AND the river was full of ice. To inspire his men Washington read from the new work of essayist Thomas Paine- American Crisis. The inspiring selection begins with the timeless line “These are the times that try men’s souls”. Washington and his men were successful in their crossing. They moved towards the Hessians in the pre-dawn hours. The battle lasted a mere 45-minutes and ended in victory with the capture of over 900 HEssian prisoners. The colonials also gained much-needed supplies and ammunitions. This sacking of the British lead to the revolutionaries regaining control of New Jersey. The group crossing with Washington included not just our first President but other prominent patriots as well. Riding with Washington was fifth President Monroe, future Chief Justice John Marshall, and Alexander Hamilton.
The feat accomplished by Washington and his men that Christmas night has become a celebrated moment in US History. It has been faithfully recreated every year since 1952. Perhaps the most famous recognition came from German American painter Emanuel Leutze. Leutze created the classic painting Washington Crossing the Delaware in 1850. The painting was sold in 1851 for an amazing $10,000 (roughly $250,000 today). Leutze’s version of the events included future President Monroe on the boat with Washington. Monroe is the one holding the flag.