Oh Christmas trees, oh Christmas trees, One Hundred years and counting
Following the death of President Warren G. Harding on August 2, 1923, Calvin Coolidge became president and moved into the White House with First Lady Grace Coolidge. Grace recorded her thoughts on the monumental moment in her autobiography:
“There was a sense of detachment—this was I and not yet I, this was the wife of the President of the United States and she took precedence over me; my personal likes and dislikes must be subordinated to the consideration of those things which were required of her.”
She was well liked in Washington, D.C. society and known for her hospitality and entertaining. On one memorable occasion, Grace hosted the 1927 White House Easter Egg Roll along with Rebecca, her pet raccoon.
Grace Coolidge also suffered tragedy at the White House. In 1924, her son Calvin Coolidge, Jr. developed a blister on his toe after playing tennis on the White House Tennis Court and died from septicemia on July 7, 1924.
Following her son’s death, Grace began working to improve the White House. She decorated the family quarters in a colonial style and worked to return historic furnishings previously removed from the White House. To accomplish these goals, in 1925 Congress passed a joint resolution allowing the White House to accept donations of art and furniture. Grace also worked with an advisory committee to acquire antiques and other American historical furnishings.
Grace Coolidge was a teacher and philanthropist, and this month we will share some lesser-known insights about her — who she was, and how she used her influence during her time at the White House.
In November 1923, First Lady Grace Coolidge gave permission for the District of Columbia Public Schools to erect a Christmas tree on the Ellipse south of the White House. The organizers named the tree the “National Christmas Tree.”
On December 24, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge touches a button and lights up the first national Christmas tree to grace the White House grounds.
Not only was this the first White House “community” Christmas tree, but it was the first to be decorated with electric lights—a strand of 2,500 red, white and green bulbs. The balsam fir came from Coolidge’s home state of Vermont and stood 48 feet tall. Several musical groups performed at the tree-lighting ceremony, including the Epiphany Church choir and the U.S. Marine Band. Later that evening, President Coolidge and first lady Grace were treated to carols sung by members of Washington, D.C.’s First Congregational Church.
From 1924 to 1953 live trees, in various locations around and on the White House grounds, were lit on Christmas Eve. In 1954 the ceremony returned to the Ellipse and expanded its focus. Local civic and business groups created the Christmas Pageant of Peace. Smaller live trees representing the 50 states, five territories, and the District of Columbia, formed a Pathway of Peace.
On December 17, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower lit the cut tree donated by the people of Michigan. Cut trees continued to be used until 1973.
Central to the season’s celebration is the living National Christmas Tree, a 27-foot white fir, planted on the Ellipse on October 30, 2021. The previous tree was a 30-foot Colorado blue spruce from Palmyra, Pa., planted in Oct. 2019. The tree was removed in May of 2021 after developing needle cast, a fungal disease that affects spruce trees and causes their needles to turn brown and fall off.
Today, the National Christmas Tree stands as a daily reminder of the holiday spirit and of the tradition each succeeding President has participated in since 1923.
According to the White House Historical Association, President Benjamin Harrison was the first president to set up an indoor Christmas tree for his family and visitors to enjoy in 1889. It was decorated with ornaments and candles. In 1929, first lady Lou Henry Hoover oversaw what would become an annual tradition of decorating the indoor White House tree. Since then, each first lady’s duties have included the trimming of the official White House tree.
Coolidge’s “inauguration” of the first outdoor national Christmas tree initiated a tradition that has been repeated with every administration. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan began another custom by authorizing the first official White House ornament, copies of which were made available for purchase. I have three, all gifted to me over the years.
Have a blessed holiday!
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