First Ladies Library Blog

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The First Ladies at Christmas: Seven Modern Women, Part 4

Modern First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama all introduced innovations to White House holiday traditions.

Modern First Ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon, Rosalynn Carter, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama all introduced innovations to White House holiday traditions.

The era immediately following the end of World War II changed the celebration of Christmas in the United States forever. While much of the sentimental songs of longing and separation caused by the war remained standards, such as “White Christmas,” the postwar economic flush sparked an unheralded consumerism which made the business of Christmas boom. And the increasingly lavish decorations and new customs introduced by First Ladies also reflected that change as the 20th century progressed into the 21st.

The tinseled East Room tree under Eisenhower.

The tinseled East Room tree under Eisenhower.

Another factor shifted the role of First Ladies on the national scene during the holiday season. Whereas the previous generation had involved themselves with local charities and organizations by stepping out into the public sphere to share the holiday, after the years of Eleanor Roosevelt’s active visibility there was a greater public expectation from presidential spouses to expand their accessibility, and make the holiday White House more accessible, both in person and through the media, a feat accomplished by the growing visual mediums of newsreels, television and live video feeds.

Mamie Eisenhower loved every holiday, from Halloween to St. Patrick’s Day, from Independence Day to Valentine’s Day.

Christmas, however, was a whole galaxy unto itself for her.

In 1958, she not only had a large tree set up in the family quarters but a count of thirty others on the state floor and at the North Portico entrance. While none of the popular synthetic silver trees were ever spotted, she had the real ones doused in enough silver tinsel to seem like it.

The Eisenhower family in the West Sitting Hall in front of the family's tree.

The Eisenhower family in the West Sitting Hall in front of the family’s tree.

And just to make sure that every person, be it tourist or guest, who entered the house immediately caught the spirit of the holiday season, Mrs. Eisenhower employed the new gadgetry of stereophonic projection, having a loop of pre-recorded Christmas carols piped in through a modern sound system.

(It was the same one she used in the spring when she had the sound of chirping bird broadcasted through the house).

Seen here with her grandson  and daughter-in-law Mamie Eisenhower had the Cross Hall columns wrapped in evergreen garland.

With grandson and daughter-in-law, Mrs. Eisenhower had columns wrapped in garland.

The multitude of trees and the recorded carols were the least of it. Mrs. Eisenhower also had nearby hobby shops raided for miles of large-bulbed colored lights, fake evergreen garlands, glass and plastic baubles and ornaments, and bright red ribbons and bows.

All of it was worked into wreaths for the windows, in which an electric candles stood in the center of each.

In the house, the gardening staff had their hands full spray-painting tree branches winter white, which were them placed around the white columns of the house, which were also wound with the garlands.

Red bows were tied around the large free-standing candelabras and mistletoe hung from the crystal chandeliers.

For a final touch, she had the windows sprayed with a white substance to simulate snow drifts. It was an eye-popping Fabulous Fifties Winter Wonderland to be sure.

Unfortunately no color images of Mamie’s White House Christmases have yet surfaced.

Mamie Eisenhower at Christmas.

Mamie Eisenhower at Christmas.

And this First Lady, although personally managing the household budget to the penny, was not tightwad when it came to spreading the annual goodwill. “It’s been my desire, all my life, to be able to give a Christmas gift to everybody who works for me!”

Each year, every White House staff employee, from butlers to maids to electricians to gardeners to cooks and bakers was invited up to the family quarters where she eagerly handed them each a personal gift.

The staff was given to nicknaming her “Mrs. Christmas,”  the former Chief Usher later chuckled, also recalling her coming into his office when the radio was on and tapping her toe and snapping her fingers to the then-new song, “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Mamie Eisenhower's personal Christmas card.

Mamie Eisenhower’s personal Christmas card.

Her generosity, however, extended beyond those she knew or would ever meet. Receiving hundreds of letters from parents unable to purchase toys for their children asking if there was some charity or place that could help them to provide one, Mrs. Eisenhower directed that hundreds of gifts sent to her four grandchildren be quietly sent to those in need.

Mamie Eisenhower so loved Christmas that she even had a series of her own personal cards made with herself as a caricature, and another with her and the President, both crafted by artists who worked for her friend Joyce Hallmark of the famous card company.

As Mamie did, so did Jackie.

Jacqueline Kennedy's original watercolors were reprinted as Christmas cards.

Jacqueline Kennedy’s original watercolors were reprinted as Christmas cards.

Jacqueline Kennedy designed three different Christmas cards during her tenure as First Lady.

Two were printed from her own original watercolored pen sketch paintings, one titled Gift of the Magi, of the three Kings, the other being of a Good Tidings, of a trumpeting angel.

Both were printed onto thousands of boxes of Christmas cards which were then sold to the general public in a limited edition, as a means of raising funds for the National Cultural Center, later to be named in her late husband’s honor as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Mrs. Kennedy sent out a personal card of her driving a one-horse sleigh across the South Lawn.

Mrs. Kennedy sent out a personal card of her driving a one-horse sleigh across the South Lawn.

Jacqueline Kennedy had a third Christmas card made but she didn’t design it – she was depicted in it.

As the personal card she had sent out, she used a black and white picture of herself driving her children in a one-horse sleigh across the snow-covered South Lawn.

Jacqueline Kennedy went further in giving a theme to the White House Christmas tree which, by then, had become traditionally placed in the center of the large, oval Blue Room.

The Kennedys in front of the Nutcracker Suite tree.

The Kennedys in front of the Nutcracker Suite tree.

Reflecting her love of ballet, she chose the subject of “The Nutcracker Suite,” and had the tree’s branches laden with ornaments modeled after its costumed characters.

In 1961, she also borrowed a magnificent antique nativity crèche, a rare depiction of religious imagery in a government building, showing the nativity scene of Christ’s birth. birth of Christ.

Jacqueline Kennedy hands out lollipops at Junior Village.

Jacqueline Kennedy hands out lollipops at Junior Village.

Mrs. Kennedy ensured the involvement of children in her holiday activities. She not only initiated a holiday party for children of the diplomatic corps who came in colorful clothes of their native lands, but also sponsored a party for disadvantaged local children over which the Attorney General’s wife, Ethel Kennedy, presided.

Jacqueline Kennedy also visited the local Junior Village, a permanent home for children who had been abandoned or orphaned, and then went to Children’s Hospital distributing gifts to youngsters being hospitalized during the holidays.

Pat Nixon especially focused on making the White House interesting for the long lines of tourists who patiently waited on line in the long, ground floor corridor to see the house during the holiday season. It was part of her overall effort to make the historic mansion as accessible and enjoyable as possible for the average visitor.

Pat Nixon helped the staff decorate the White House during the holidays.

Pat Nixon helped the staff decorate the White House during the holidays.

She placed historical objects from previous presidential Christmases displayed in glass cases along the wall of the building, and had snowmen built on the lawn which could be seen through the facing wall of windows.

This First Lady literally helped decorate the vast rooms and halls of the state floor of the White House herself, working with her daughter Julie and electricians and handymen, to ascend ladders and literally deck the entrance hall with holly.

Pat Nixon and daughter Julie inspect the first of the White House Gingerbread houses.

Pat Nixon and daughter Julie inspect the first of the White House Gingerbread houses.

There, she started a new White House holiday tradition, having a gingerbread house created by the White House bakers displayed for close view, placed in the State Dining Room. During her tenure it was a simple ski chalet, modest in comparison to the more elaborate ones to come.

To permit as many people as possible in to see the decorations, the First Lady initiated what were called “Candlelight Tours,” the first time that tourists were permitted into the White House during the evening hours, with many of the candles lit and the electric lights turned down low, giving a unique ambience to the mansion which enhanced the feeling of the holidays.

Visitors on Pat Nixon's first candlelight tour, 1970.

Visitors on Pat Nixon’s first candlelight tour, 1970.

She further enhanced this by asking the Marine Band to continuously play Christmas music until the last visitor had left that night.

Mrs. Nixon offered an added innovation to the White House Christmas parties for disadvantaged children begun by Jackie Kennedy and continued by First Daughter Luci Johnson; this First Lady hosted the parties on the Sequoia, the presidential yacht.

Pat Nixon at the 1972 holiday preview.

Pat Nixon at the 1972 holiday preview.

She further hosted a school group which evoked an especially poignant moment for her. Making good on her initial extension of an invitation to the White House, she welcomed sixty Los Angeles Junior School for the Blind students, their trip unwritten by donors, guiding them through the holiday-decorated mansion, describing what they could not see.

She recalled an especially poignant moment, their singing for her again the inspiring song Climb Every Mountain, from the movie Sound of Music, the song they had sung when she had first heard them perform.

Certainly. the most extraordinary White House Christmas party in history was the one hosted by Rosalynn Carter in 1980.

Peggy Fleming skating at the ice rink built on the South Lawn for Rosalynn Carter's 1980 outdoor Christmas party.

Peggy Fleming skating at the ice rink built on the South Lawn for Rosalynn Carter’s 1980 outdoor Christmas party.

By holding the party on the South Lawn rather than in the state rooms, she permitted a far larger number of guests to attend and she kept them entertained and warm with some novel entertainment.

An entire ice skating ring was built and the legendary skater Peggy Fleming performed, certainly a first for the White House.

Rosalynn Carter at the 1980 Christmas Tree.

Rosalynn Carter at the 1980 Christmas Tree.

Mrs. Carter also had booths with hot chocolate available, a petting zoo with live reindeer, snowmen in various sizes and guised as different contemporary personalities, and a snow-making machine shed white flakes on the delighted crowds

For their first three years in the White House, the Carters kept up their tradition of spending Christmas morning with the President’s family and then going to the First Lady’s mother’s home to share their holiday dinner with her and the First Lady’s siblings. Her last Christmas, however, was the most bittersweet for Rosalynn Carter and she wanted to spend the holiday at Camp David.

The President, Mrs. Carter, daughter Amy and Peggy Fleming with a snowman at the outdoor party.

The President, Mrs. Carter, daughter Amy and Peggy Fleming with a snowman at the outdoor party.

A month earlier, the President had lost his bid for re-election, and American hostages continued to be held by Iran, a fact memorialized by the decision to permit the National Christmas Tree to be lit for only 419 minutes, the number of days since they had been held as prisoners.

Mrs. Carter was only to spend the holiday with her husband and daughter, but at the suggestion of Amy Carter, members of the White House staff were invited to join them at Camp David, an especial treat since it was the first time most of them had ever been able to see the private presidential retreat.

Barbara Bush also preferred spending Christmas at Camp David, since it permitted the Secret Service agents who protected her and the President to spend the holiday with their families in Washington, and since the many guest cabins there offered enough room for all five of her adult children and all of her grandchildren to stay overnight there.

There were more than enough winter activities for the whole family there, and the First Lady joined in them – although one year she broke her leg after tumbling from a sled ride down a steep snowy hill.

Barbara Bush placing the star atop the National Christmas Tree.

Barbara Bush placing the star atop the National Christmas Tree.

Mrs. Bush also continued on for her four years as First Lady a custom she had begun as the Vice President’s wife from 1981 to 1988, of stepping into a fire engine cage and being raised in it to place the star atop the National Christmas Tree.

Long a supporter of the charitable Salvation Army, she was alarmed when she learned that local area department stores had banned the bell-ringing volunteers of the group, in their signature blue coats, from urging shoppers to toss some coins into their small red kettles.

Barbara Bush joined by the former President ringing a Salvation Army Bell for donations in her post-White House years.

Barbara Bush joined by the former President ringing a Salvation Army Bell for donations in her post-White House years.

The First Lady had herself driven in a White House car to a local mall, stepped out of the car and donated some money, a move captured and publicized by the White House. It had the effect of reversing the ban. In the White House, she also hosted a special children’s party for those from families who were homeless during the holiday season.

This First Lady continued the custom of having a unique Gingerbread House crafted each year, perhaps the most unique one being a Candy Castle, made entirely of candy and dubbed “the Land of Sweets.” And, without intending to do so, Barbara Bush may have also accidentally begun another welcome holiday tradition in the White House.

Barbara Bush with her dog Millie looks over the Blue Room tree.

Barbara Bush with her dog Millie looks over the Blue Room tree.

Rarely making a public appearance or granting an interview anywhere in the White House with the company of her beloved spaniel Millie, as she did when coming to preview the Blue Room tree in 1990.

From then on, whatever pet was reigning during any Administration, they would be making at least one public appearance during the holiday season.

Socks the Cat during a White House Christmas.

Socks the Cat during a White House Christmas.

Hillary Clinton continued this custom, permitting not just the family’s dog Buddy, from their last years in the White House, but Socks the Cat, to be photographed around the holiday-decorated house.

The Gingerbread House tradition also got more personal under Hillary Clinton’s tenure, the pastry chef crafting edible versions of both her childhood home in Park Ridge, Illinois and that of the President, in Hope, Arkansas.

Hillary Clinton looks into the Gingerbread House modeled after her childhood home.

Hillary Clinton looks into the Gingerbread House modeled after her childhood home.

Despite being best remembered for her policy involvement as First Lady, Mrs. Clinton took an active interest in Christmas at the White House. She invited the celebrity “domestic goddess” Martha Stewart to come film a television special on how the White House prepared for the holidays and the final results.

She even “decorated” herself, whether it was wearing one of the multi-design “Christmas sweaters” which were ubiquitous during the early 1990s or displaying one of her 1996 holiday gifts from the President, a necklace made of colored-glass Christmas lights which flashed on and off, by a hidden battery.

Despite being best remembered for her policy involvement as First Lady, Mrs. Clinton took an active interest in Christmas at the White House.

She invited the celebrity “domestic goddess” Martha Stewart to come film a television special on how the White House prepared for the holidays and the final results.

Hillary Clinton in her Nineties Xmas sweater.

Hillary Clinton in her Nineties Xmas sweater.

She even “decorated” herself, whether it was wearing one of the multi-design “Christmas sweaters” which were ubiquitous during the early 1990s or displaying one of her 1996 holiday gifts from the President, a necklace made of colored-glass Christmas lights which flashed on and off, by a hidden battery.

During her eight years as First Lady, Hillary Clinton continued the custom of a different theme for the Blue Room Christmas Tree, always using traditional concepts based, for example, on holiday carols and books such as The Twelve Days of Christmas and The Night Before Christmas.

Each year’s ornaments were crafted by the nation’s leading artists and art schools.

The 2012 Obama Gingerbread House featured a reproduction of Michelle Obama's vegetable garden.

The 2012 Obama Gingerbread House featured a reproduction of Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden.

When one year she chose the theme “Angels, We Have Heard On High,” a cloth figurine depicted the classic movie star Mae West, the First Lady was upbraided for this “pornographic ornament” by a disgruntled former government worker seeking to score a political attack.

The current First Lady has continued all of these White House holiday traditions initiated by her predecessors. During her tenure, the artistry of the Gingerbread House has become even more detailed.

Michelle Obama brought along her dog Bo to holiday events outside of the White House as well as those held there.

Michelle Obama brought along her dog Bo to holiday events outside of the White House as well as those held there.

In 2012, for example, it included a minute reproduction of the White House vegetable garden which was created by Michelle Obama, the individual vegetables being crafted from marzipan candy.

During the holiday season, at events not just in the White House but those held outside at charitable institutions, Michelle Obama was accompanied by Bo, the first of two Portuguese water dogs belonging to the First Family.

Always spending their private holiday in Hawaii, the birth state of the President, Michelle Obama traditionally spent Christmas morning by attending church services at a local military base, followed by a visit to service centers for members of the armed services.

Michelle Obama invited the children of active members of the armed service to help make ornaments and cookies.

Michelle Obama invited the children of active members of the armed service to help make ornaments and cookies.

She also used the traditional White House holiday party for children as an opportunity to extend her ongoing project of providing support to military families, setting aside an entire day for children with parents who were active members of the armed services to craft ornaments for the White House tree and to help make and decorate holiday cookies.

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Five Progressive Era First Ladies Edith Wilson Florence Harding Grace Coolidge Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt felt a duty to use their status to share aspects of the holiday with the public.

Five Progressive Era First Ladies Edith Wilson Florence Harding Grace Coolidge Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt felt a duty to use their status to share aspects of the holiday with the public.

If the Victorian Age had seen First Ladies at Christmas extending themselves beyond the private boundaries of marking the holiday with just their family by involving themselves in community efforts, the first half of the twentieth century saw a number of First Ladies going further by sharing it with the public either in person or by using the White House.

While most of these women were progressive either by their words and deeds or their attitudes about themselves as women with a right to education and professional pursuits, the first in the group was neither. Edith Wilson perceived her role as less of a public figure and more as a devoted wife to her husband, who just happened to be President.

In the context of Woodrow Wilson becoming the first incumbent U.S. President to travel overseas in 1918, to help negotiate the

Edith Wilson seated besides General Pershing at Christmas 1918 dinner in France, just after World War I's end.

Edith Wilson seated besides General Pershing at Christmas 1918 dinner in France, just after World War I’s end.

post-World War I peace treaty, however, she became the first First Lady to spend Christmas outside of the country, sharing the holiday with top military brass, at the New York Fifth Division headquarters of General John Pershing in Chaumont, France.

Before traveling by rail there on Christmas Eve, Edith Wilson had joined her husband in strolling the streets of Paris among the city’s residents, popping into a bookstore and clothing shop, pausing to watch a florist spraying gold paint on mistletoe branches. Before Mrs. Wilson was to sit beside General Pershing for Christmas dinner in a large, drafty temporary structure, however, she would trample muddy fields to offer the season’s good wishes with U.S. troops stationed there, as the President reviewed them.

Also in Paris with Woodrow and Edith Wilson was his daughter Margaret Wilson, who had served as First Lady following her mother’s death in August 1914 and before the President’s second wedding in December of 1915.

Margaret Wilson at far right with her father and stepmother Edith Wilson.

Margaret Wilson at far right with her father and stepmother Edith Wilson.

Although she was no longer serving as First Lady a year after the wedding, Margaret Wilson was still living at the White House and she was the figure of focus at a public concert of Christmas carols which took place on the steps of the U.S. Treasury Building, adjacent to the presidential mansion. The President’s daughter, a professional singer, led the public in singing some of the carols and her presence prompted an unexpected bonus for the public, the sudden appearance there of Edith Wilson and the President.

Florence Harding strove to provide a similar bond with the general public at Christmas.

Mrs. Harding hung wreaths in the White House windows for the public.

Mrs. Harding hung wreaths in the White House windows for the public.

Initially, she had planned to have lit candles placed in the windows of all the rooms of the White House for passersby to enjoy.

She decided not todo so after being warned by the insurance industry that this could set an example which might prove dangerous by raising the statistical chances for home fires.

Instead, she opted instead to hang Christmas wreaths in the windows.

The First Lady buys savings bonds for Christmas from the Treasury Secretary.

The First Lady buys savings bonds for Christmas from the Treasury Secretary.

She also encouraged the American people to buy savings bonds as wise investments that were an efficient and practical Christmas gifts, posing to purchase some herself in front of the South Portico.

In 1921 and 1922, Mrs. Harding also sent out a small number of engravings of the south view of the White House and signed them invariably as “Greetings of the Season,” “Happy Holidays,” and “Best Wishes of the Season.”

On autographed engraved cards, Florence Harding also sometimes wrote out "Happy Holidays."

On autographed engraved cards, Florence Harding also sometimes wrote out “Happy Holidays.”

She also played a “Mrs. Santa role of sorts, being asked by the President to choose which non-violent prisoners held in federal penitentiaries should be granted their petitions for parole.

Further, she sent the unusual gift of giant-sized candy canes to the wounded and disabled veterans of World War I who languished in the wards of nearby Walter Reed Hospital.

Florence Harding gave mammoth candy canes to wounded Walter Reed Hospital vets.

Florence Harding gave mammoth candy canes to wounded Walter Reed Hospital vets.

Extending further Florence Harding’s decking the White House windows with wreathes for the public’s pleasure, her immediate successor Grace Coolidge hosted a unique Christmas caroling concert on the steps of the White House North Portico.

Perhaps using the 1916 caroling event on the Treasury Building steps in which Margaret Wilson had participated as her model, Mrs. Coolidge arranged for a similar event to be held on the steps of the White House North Portico.

Working with her local parish of the First Congregational Church, some sixty-five members of the church choristers sang familiar carols of the season and the general public was invited to come onto the North Lawn to hear it more closely.

Grace Coolidge arranged for carolers to sing for the public on the White House steps.

Grace Coolidge arranged for carolers to sing for the public on the White House steps.

They also glimpsed the First Lady herself, along with her son John, joining in the singing. The group’s leader even composed a new Christmas carol, Christmas Bells, in her honor.

Although she had no direct role in the arrangement of the placement of the first National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse, just south of the White House, Grace Coolidge did join her husband there when he became the first President to light it.

Grace Coolidge joined her husband in lighting the National Christmas Tree.

Grace Coolidge joined her husband in lighting the National Christmas Tree.

She did, however, employ a similar sentiment in another innovation she created to further the bond between the public and the presidency during the holiday season. Although the Tafts had put up a Christmas tree just days before the holiday for the enjoyment of their visiting family members, Mrs. Coolidge had one installed in the Blue Room for the pleasure of the public. The tall spruce, from her native state of Vermont, was put up just after Thanksgiving so it could be enjoyed by the streams of tourists who walked through the rooms of the state floor.

Mrs. Coolidge was also the first of three successive First Ladies to personally hand out toys at Washington’s Central Union Mission for children whose parents were unable to provide gifts for them.

The Great Depression’s devastating affect on families extended the intentions of the Washington Central Union Mission, and would soon enough have both Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt not only distributing toys to children but food baskets to their parents.

Lou Hoover distributes gifts at a mission during the Depression.

Lou Hoover distributes gifts at a mission during the Depression.

Lou Hoover continued the idea of caroling but rather than have these performed by church choristers, she invited a large contingency of Girl Scouts to perform the singing. Unfortunately, although it may have been a symbol of goodwill to the general public during the period of economic devastation, she had the singing performed inside the mansion for private guests only.

In one unique respect, Lou Hoover shared the White House with special friends and family at Christmas quite literally: in 1930 the gift sent from the mansion were pieces of old pinewood from the building’s earliest years, removed during a renovation.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking on Christmas Eve 1936 at a charitable event.

Eleanor Roosevelt speaking on Christmas Eve 1936 at a charitable event.

True to form, Eleanor Roosevelt’s Christmases as First Lady were as fully scheduled as every day of her year. It began early on Christmas Eve, when she made the annual visit to the Washington Central Union Mission, and then dropped in at other holiday parties being hosted by local charitable organizations, followed by a goodwill visit to an old-age home the condition of which she was seeking to upgrade.

She would return to the White House quickly, certain to first appear at an annual late afternoon tea dance which her sons held for their classmates and friends in the East Room, and would be ready at five in the evening to stand with President Roosevelt as he lit the National Christmas Tree by remote switch from the South Portico, and delivered his live annual holiday message  to the nation by radio.

After this, she was back in the East Room with the President, by then cleared out of the young adults at the tea dance, and ready to watch and listen as he read The Night Before Christmas to an eager crowd of children, including a number of Roosevelt grandchildren.

Eleanor Roosevelt Christmas shopping for toys.

Eleanor Roosevelt Christmas shopping for toys.

Before she would lay down to sleep and awake on Christmas Day, however, Mrs. Roosevelt still kept to one more personal tradition, attending midnight services at St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

Despite her own dismal childhood or perhaps because of it, the holiday season was the favorite time of year for Eleanor Roosevelt and, like Julia Grant and Ida McKinley before her,  especially relished the large task of buying every single personal gift which she would dispense to nearly one hundred individual friends, family and staff members.

She would unceremoniously pop into local Washington shops and stores, sweeping through the aisles and making purchases, often buying a multiple number of the same item.

When it appeared to some shopkeepers that she was favoring the popular Kahn’s store, this First Lady obliged to spread her sponsorship, going to several other stores and making purchases there as well.

Mrs. Roosevelt meets Santa Claus.

Mrs. Roosevelt meets Santa Claus.

And there was never a Santa Claus that Eleanor Roosevelt was unwilling to pose beside, especially if it could help sales in a store struggling to survive during the Depression.

Eleanor Roosevelt's second volume on the holiday was published a year after her death. (amazon)

Eleanor Roosevelt’s second volume on the holiday was published a year after her death.

This First Lady also earned a unique holiday precedent, the only one to author not one but two children’s books for Christmas.

The second book, entitled Eleanor Roosevelt’s Christmas Book, was posthumously published by Dodd, Meadin 1963, a year after her death, and is a collection of her writings over the years about the holiday season.

The first was published while she was in the White House, in 1940, as the storm clouds were gathering over Europe with Nazi Germany’s Third Reigh on the march in Europe.

The First Lady's first Christmas book, 1940. (brain pickings.org)

The First Lady’s first Christmas book, 1940. (brain pickings.org)

Christmas: A Story tells a tale of a Dutch girl, striving to make sense of humanity’s darkness after her father is killed.

Rather than ignore the truth to children of the current state of affairs, the First Lady articulated in her introduction:

The times are so serious that even children should be made to understand that there are vital differences in people’s beliefs which lead to differences in behavior.”

Eleanor Roosevelt's introduction to her 1940 Christmas book. (brain picking.org)

The preface to Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1940 Christmas book. (brain picking.org)

 

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Five First Ladies of the Victorian Era celebrated Christmas in the White House as private family events only: Julia Grant, Lucy Hayes, Frances Cleveland, Caroline Harrison, Ida McKinley.

Five First Ladies of the Victorian Era celebrated Christmas in the White House as private family events only: Julia Grant, Lucy Hayes, Frances Cleveland, Caroline Harrison, Ida McKinley.

The overwhelming sadness which overcast both North and South during the four holiday seasons of the Civil War was felt just as intensely in the White House of Abraham and Mary Lincoln. This was followed three more difficult Christmastimes for the succeeding Andrew Johnson family during the growing acrimony between him and Congress and the bitterness of his impeachment trial. Not until the last one the Johnsons marked in the White House was there any joy at Christmas, when a special children’s party was hosted by the five little presidential grandchildren who lived in the Executive Mansion.

Christmas became popularized in the U.S. during the Victorian Age.

Christmas became popularized in the U.S. during the Victorian Age.

It was during the Administration of the next President, Ulysses S. Grant, that a more genuinely happy spirit again reigned in the White House, all of it overseen by the optimistic and witty Julia Dent Grant. It was by Julia Grant’s direction that Christmas in the White House moved one step closer to becoming a holiday shared with the public just as the general population of Victorian America was beginning to make the holiday the largest one in national life.

Julia Grant.

Julia Grant.

Previous First Ladies who had arranged Christmastime dinners or parties in the White House did so in the context of being wives and mothers, considering the details about how she and her family spent the holiday to be an utterly private matter, the details to be withheld from reporters who were always hanging about the executive offices at the west end of the same hallway where the presidential family lived. It was not to be shared with the general public. Julia Grant felt otherwise.

Mrs. Grant permitted the details of her family’s first White House Christmas to be fully disclosed for public consumption.

The first public notice of Christmas at the White House, 1869.

The first public notice of Christmas at the White House, 1869.

On December 28, 1869, it was reported in The Evening Star of Washington, D.C. that the President and Mrs. Grant hosted a Christmas dinner and published the names of each guest, details about the meal and what the party did after their meal. It is the first known instance of details about a First Family’s Christmas being published in the newspapers.

What is most interesting about the guest list is that it represented a mix of private and public, with family members and executive department aides and the heads of government departments.  The First Lady’s own nuclear family dominated, including her aged father, two of her brothers and their spouses, a sister-in-law and niece, a sister and her spouse, but there were eleven non-family guests.

The report concluded that:

“The dinner was a fine one, and was prepared under the directions of the new steward, V. Melah, of New York, who commenced his services as chef de cuisine on this occasion. At the conclusion of the banquet, the party proceeded to the East Room, and promenaded and indulged in social converse for a time. They afterwards repaired to the Red Room, and closed the evening with music and singing, the juveniles amusing themselves in their own way.”

This First Lady was also the very first one known to ever send out a Christmas card, likely in her last year in that role, 1876.  Always at the cutting edge of the fashionable, it may well be that Julia Grant sent it, to her friend Mrs. Childs in Philadelphia, in 1875, a year earlier, when the first known Christmas cards sold in the United States. If if was sent out in 1875, the only known example which still remains may be among the earliest known Christmas cards examples.

Sent by Julia Grant, this only known example is perhaps one of the earliest extant Christmas cards.

Sent by Julia Grant, this only known example is perhaps one of the earliest extant Christmas cards.

The card is actually a message printed on a two-fold mustard-colored paper. In the middle of the top page is a small bit of straw which is inserted several words in – the word “straw” rhyming with the amusing message of goodwill: “I fear to send this greeting to you, less happily you may draw that I only care a [straw]. ‘Tis not so, I assure you. The fact is, ‘Times are bad,’ and I only could procure you the best of what I had.”

The Grant family.

The Grant family.

Julia Grant went further in extending from the White House the spirit of the season. As Christmas approached, large wood barrels were being delivered by horse and buggy to local Washington orphanages, old age homes, hospitals and insane asylums. These were gifts from Mrs. Grant and the President, filled to the brim with candied fruit.

This First Lady went a step further, making her Christmas generosity even more personal; when she went out to a city toy store and encountered a group of poor children staring longingly at the toys in the window, she invited them in and bought them all toys, as well as gifts for her own children.

Also the mother of several sons and one daughter, Mrs. Grant’s successor Lucy Hayes also shared aspects of her Christmas with those other than family members. She continued her own charities, particularly concerned with indigent Union Army veterans and orphans.

Lucy Hayes.

Lucy Hayes.

On the morning of Christmas Day, Lucy Hayes invited all of the White House staff members, which included African-American domestic workers, and their own spouses and children, to join in the First Family’s festivities, presenting them all with gifts.

Frances Cleveland's Christmas tree for her three little girls.

Frances Cleveland’s Christmas tree for her three little girls.

Frances Cleveland’s Christmases as First Lady followed a similar duality.

While she lavished attention on her own three little girls Ruth, Esther and Marion in her last year in the White House, buying them all different types of dolls which were placed beneath the small tree which stood in the oval room of the family quarters, she had also been lavishing attention on other children for several years.

In 1893, during the first Christmas of her husbands second, non-consecutive term, Frances Cleveland assumed the role of honorary president of The Christmas Club, an organization which underwrote gifts, and hosted an annual holiday party for the most deeply impoverished demographic of the local African-American community.

Frances Cleveland was president of the charitable organization The Christmas Club for impoverished African-American children and attended the annual event, including the puppet show.

Frances Cleveland was president of the charitable organization The Christmas Club for impoverished African-American children and attended the annual event, including the puppet show.

With the “badge of the Christmas Club gleaming white on her fur-trimmed garnet coat,” wrote one reporter, she “helped distribute the toys and candy from the sparkling Christmas tree.” Afterwards, the First Lady sat with the children through their Christmas dinner and the puppet show put on for them after the meal.

Credit for the first definitively-documented Christmas tree in the White House in 1889 goes to Caroline Harrison who served as First Lady after and before Frances Cleveland.

In this illustration, Caroline Harrison presents a gift to her grandson in front of the first definitively documented White House Christmas tree.

In this illustration, Caroline Harrison presents a gift to her grandson in front of the first definitively documented White House Christmas tree.

As chronicled in a letter by her daughter Mary McKee, the First Lady decided to have a tree set up in the small corner room that was the nursery of the three presidential grandchildren who were in residence and “after breakfast we lighted the tree.”

Perhaps Christmas was more poignant for Ida McKinley than any other First Lady. For her first two holidays in the White House, she relished the diamond hair combs and then diamond bracelets which the President gave her. In 1899, however, she grew especially despondent. Their first child, daughter Katie, had been born on Christmas but had died twenty-three years earlier, before she even reached the age of four. Whenever she became wistful as the holiday approached, the President knew her thoughts returned to grieving the lost girl. So that year, her husband took a different tactic with the diamonds: he gave her a blue frame studded with her favorite jewel and within it, the familiar and singular image of toddler Katie.

Ida McKinley permitted her grandniece Marjorie Morse a small Christmas tree in her room.

Ida McKinley permitted her grandniece Marjorie Morse a small Christmas tree in her room.

For Mrs. McKinley, however, the presence of other little girls managed to immediately lift her spirits during Christmas. She especially welcomed the visit to the White House for Christmas 1900 of five-year old Marjorie Morse, daughter of the President’s niece, and family references point to the fact that the First Lady permitted a small tree set up for her grandniece in her White House room.

This First Lady loved Christmas shopping as much as she loved the holiday itself and annually made an excursion to New York for a whirlwind of gift buying.

Staying in the Windsor Hotel suite always used by her and the President during their frequent trips to to the city, Ida McKinley found one year’s highlight to be the visit paid to her by a group of little children who lived in the residential hotel.

On her Christmas shopping trips to New York, department store clerks brought various gifts for Ida McKinley to choose from in her hotel suite.

On her Christmas shopping trips to New York, department store clerks brought various gifts for Ida McKinley to choose from in her hotel suite.

One year, she stayed with them for a longer period of time than she did in reviewing the dozens and dozens of gifts which were brought from local department store by clerks for her review.

And, contrary to the caricature of Ida McKinley as a permanent invalid, during one holiday season in the White House, she hosted a lively dance for young people in the Blue Room, including nieces of hers and of the President.

Even more startling is that the Christmas spirit so moved her that during the holiday following her husband’s election to the presidency, Mrs. McKinley arose from her chair and joined in the dancing herself.

 

 

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First Ladies at Christmas: Six Southern Hostesses, Part 1

Six southern First Ladies at Christmas: Martha Jefferson Randolph, Dolley Madison, Emily Donelson, Letitia Tyler, Sarah Polk, Peggy Taylor.

Six southern First Ladies at Christmas: Martha Jefferson Randolph, Dolley Madison, Emily Donelson, Letitia Tyler, Sarah Polk, Peggy Taylor.

Today, Christmas Day is among the biggest of the holidays celebrated in the United States between Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day.

An antebellum plantation house decorated for Christmas.

An antebellum plantation house decorated for Christmas.

In the earliest days of the new nation, however, the manner in which people who observed Christmas as a religious day also marked it as a holiday celebration had as much to do with their regional origins, socioeconomic status, and cultural customs dictated by their particular sect of faith.

While Quakers, Catholics, Presbyterians and Methodists who lived in New England, Mid-Atlantic and the Midwest marked the holiday in their own unique ways, Christmas was an especially celebratory time among the class of wealthy southern plantation families.

The White House during Polk's presidency.

The White House during Polk’s presidency.

In the White House, these holiday celebrations of southern presidential families were organized by the First Ladies with the notable exception of the first one.

In the first fifty years of the American presidency, it was especially First Ladies who had either been born and raised in elite class of the South, or those married to Presidents from this demographic, who made the most of Christmas.

N.C. Wyeth's fanciful illustration of "Christmas in Old Virginia."

N.C. Wyeth’s fanciful illustration of “Christmas in Old Virginia.”

In contrast to the two Adams families of the second and sixth President who were New England Unitarians, for example, families of the “Virginia Dynasty” presidencies of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Tyler were all owners of large plantations  and belonged to the less strict Anglican Church, which did not forbid dancing, music, card-playing and alcohol consumption.

Christmas dancing at the Mount Vernon plantation house.

Christmas dancing at the Mount Vernon plantation house.

Like other wealthy plantation owners, many southern Presidents preserved some of their ancestral English customs, included the marking of “Twelfth Night,” the culmination of twelve consecutive nights after Christmas, with intoxicating eggnogs and punch, dancing and games.

The Washington's Twelfth Night wedding ceremony.

The Washington’s Twelfth Night wedding ceremony.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, with relatives often having to travel for several days to reach a central plantation, many remained as houseguests for weeks.

Besides the celebration of Christmas and the twelve frolicking days which followed, family weddings often took place during this time, taking advantage of so many relatives under one roof. George and Martha Washington, for example, were married on Twelfth Night in 1759.

Martha Washington's "Great White Cake," is a frosted fruitcake that was popular in the Old South.

Martha Washington’s “Great White Cake,” is a frosted fruitcake that was popular in the Old South.

Continuing the seasonal custom of dance parties, bourbon eggnog and rounds of card games, at their Mount Vernon plantation, Martha Washington also had a “Great White Cake” made each year, a rich fruitcake which was then frosted.

Martha Jefferson Randolph. (Monticello)

Martha Jefferson Randolph. (Monticello)

Martha Jefferson Randolph and her sister Maria Jefferson Eppes are why their father’s happiest Christmas was the one celebrated in 1802.

Rarely leaving their Virginia plantation homes near his own in Monticello, it would prove to be the only one celebrated by the widower Jefferson as President with both of his daughters.

In addition to their husbands, both Congressmen who lived with the President in the White House, they were also joined by six of Martha’s children and Maria’s son.

Martha Randolph preparing the Christmas Day table as her father fiddled for his dancing grandchildren.

Martha Randolph preparing the Christmas Day table as her father fiddled for his dancing grandchildren.

The President himself did the marketing on Christmas morning, purchasing a large goose and cranberry tarts, which he himself placed on the plates of all the children.

Two other guests were the President’s close friends, Secretary of State James Madison and his wife Dolley Madison. While Martha Randolph helped her father oversee the meal’s preparation, her children were taken by Mrs. Madison for a carriage ride out into the countryside near Georgetown.

Monticello at Christmas.

Monticello at Christmas.

During their excursion, she stopped to purchase sprigs of mistletoe from a slave selling it along their path, and decorated the inside of the coach with it. The table was set with eight silver candelabras and the later afternoon meal concluded with games in the oval reception room, now the Blue Room.

Dolley Madison would preside over eight of her own annual Christmas dinners as First Lady but for the final three years of her tenure, those holidays were not celebrated in the White House.

Dolley Madison, painted by George Catlin.

Dolley Madison, painted by George Catlin.

Following the August 1814 burning of the White House by the British during the War of 1812, the presidential family had to find quarters in temporary presidential mansions for the last thirty months of the Madison presidency.

Certainly that first Christmas after being left homeless was the most despondent for Mrs. Madison.

Not only was she living in the nearby, borrowed Octagon House, which was spared the British torch, but her son never arrived home from Europe for Christmas and her siblings John and Lucy never arrived in Washington from Philadelphia.

It got better, however. By the next Christmas, the war was over and Dolley Madison hosted a dinner party on the holiday, serving ice cream and permitting her green parrot to fly freely through the rooms of a second temporary executive mansion on Pennyslvania Avenue.

Sisters: Anna Cutts, Dolley Madison and Lucy Washington.

Sisters: Anna Cutts, Dolley Madison and Lucy Washington.

Certainly the most convivial Christmas she presided over was in the White House, in 1811. That year, at her holiday dinner there, Mrs. Madison was joined by her two sister Lucy Washington and Anna Payne, between whom  sat Kentucky Congressman Henry Clay.

Also joining them was a future President and First Lady, James and Elizabeth Monroe. After Monroe raised his glass to all the ladies present, the entire group repaired to the oval room, furnished in a yellow gold color, and sat down for hours of loo, Dolley Madison’s favorite card game.

Emily Donelson, niece of the late Mrs. Andrew Jackson. (The Hermitage)

Emily Donelson, niece of the late Mrs. Andrew Jackson. (The Hermitage)

At Christmas 1835, the Southern First Lady who presided at the White House was not a Virginian but rather a Tennessean, Emily Donelson, who had assumed the role during nearly all of the presidency of her widowed uncle Andrew Jackson.

The mother of four small children, three of whom were born in the executive mansion, Emily Donelson was twenty-eight years old but conducted herself with authority.

Emily Donelson had eggnog available in the White House family quarters during Christmas.

Emily Donelson had eggnog available in the White House family quarters during Christmas.

Emily was a strict disciplinarian with her children but the day before Christmas the President himself intervened with her when the young ones asked to use his room and prepare their gifts for adults.  “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” Mrs. Donelson quipped with disapproval when the President insisted he relinquish his room for them.

In the meanwhile, she directed the Jackson slaves brought from the President’s Nashville mansion to decorate the state floor with holly leaves and cedar wood branches, with evergreens in the East Room.

Alongside wrapped gifts being given among family members, she also had silver punchbowls filled with a frothy, intoxicating eggnog placed on the tables in the center hall of the second floor, into which all the family rooms opened. Christmas dinner that year sounded more like a fancy buffet brunch, the dining room table laid out carefully with artfully designed displays of the food.

Emily Donelson's daughter Rachel, one of six little children at the Christmas events she organized in 1835.

Emily Donelson’s daughter Rachel, one of six little children at the Christmas events she organized in 1835.

On Christmas morning, Emily Donelson had the children file into a small corner where they each received a stocking stuffed with candy, nuts and fruit. Immediately afterwards, she called up the presidential carriage and made a round of afternoon calls to her circle of the capital’s most elite social leaders, all of whom she counted as her friends.

Cora Livingston.

Cora Livingston.

As her daughter later recalled, Emily Donelson had “that love of pleasure and desire to please natural to young, attractive women.”

One of those society women befriended by the First Lady was Cora Livingston, a young woman from a prominent family who had come to help Emily Donelson at the White House by taking charge of the children throughout the day’s festivities.

Emily Donelson was also sure to have mistletoe hung from the chandeliers in the East Room, a gesture without subtlety as she was known to be encouraging a romance between Cora and the widowed Vice President Martin Van Buren, both of whom were guests at a children’s party hosted that holiday season for the Jackson family children and their little guests.

Eager to please the Jackson family, the Vice President even amused the children by dancing on one leg and gobbling like a turkey when that was what a play game called for when it was his turn to draw.

No Christmas romance for Van Buren.

No Christmas romance for Van Buren.

During the children’s party, Emily Donelson remained with the adults in the Red Room, but never managed to get far in prompting the Vice President and her friend Cora into a deeper romance.

Van Buren apparently had his limits in pleasing the Jacksons.

Despite frail health and limited mobility resulting from a stroke, Letitia Tyler continued to direct the presidential household  for the year and a half that she lived in the White House before her September 1842 death there.

So very little is known about her, yet a careful reading of first-hand accounts suggest that she was not nearly as invisible as later chroniclers claimed, appearing in public at a daughter’s White House wedding and joining a family theater party.

Although limited in public by her stroke, Letitia Tyler did manage social events and receive some guests in her room in the White House family quarters.

Although limited in public by her stroke, Letitia Tyler did manage social events and receive some guests in her room in the White House family quarters.

Certainly we know that Christmas had long been a time of especial delight to Letitia Tyler.

Fifteen years earlier, the future President wrote a letter home to her, the day after Christmas, feeling neglected and gently chastising her that, “Are you all so much taken up with your Christmas frolics as to have forgotten me?” He also wrote his daughter Mary that, “I do think your mother might have stolen one hour to devote to me.”

Other clues must be used to determine what Christmas for this disabled First Lady meant.

Priscilla Tyler. (University of Alabama)

Priscilla Tyler. (University of Alabama)

Just two years earlier, her daughter-in-law Priscilla Cooper Tyler reported that Letitia Tyler, who was first beset by the stroke’s paralysis a few months before, remained in her “chamber,” a large quiet bedroom at the far side of the Tyler family home in Williamsburg, Virginia:

“Notwithstanding her very delicate health, mother attends to and regulates all the household affairs and all so quietly that you can’t tell when she does it,” Priscilla wrote. “All the cakes, jellies, custards, and we indulge largely in them, emanate from her, yet you see no confusion, hear no bustle, but only meet with agreeable results…”  

A present but publicly inactive First Lady Letitia Tyler, painted by Lyle Tayson in 1979. (artworkoriginals)

A present but publicly inactive First Lady Letitia Tyler, painted by Lyle Tayson in 1979. (artworkoriginals)

Another clue is a remark attributed to her, dating from her daughter Elizabeth’s White House wedding, in which she insisted that all the guests must dance and enjoy themselves despite her own inability to join in.

Finally, it is known that during the Tyler family’s White House Christmas of 1842, the by-then widowed President oversaw a dinner of friends and family which included alcoholic eggnog among other treats.

From all this it is a safe assumption that Letitia Tyler was still very much enjoying the holiday during her only one spent in the White House, surrounded by her family, encouraging their spiritedness, and merry drinking even though she had to remain seated throughout the festivities.

Like Letitia Tyler, Margaret “Peggy” Taylor did not assume the role of public hostess during her tenure as First Lady, relinquishing it to her daughter Betty Bliss.

Margaret Taylor.

Margaret Taylor.

However, she was the undisputed leader of the especially convivial social life at the White House which took place on the second floor, appropriating from the executive offices the large room where today’s Treaty Room as her own reception room.

During the only Christmas she was to enjoy as First Lady, Peggy Taylor’s reception room was the central gathering point for the dozen or so kinfolk who stayed as house guests of the presidential family, arriving from Maryland, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia and Kentucky.

The Kentucky home of the Taylor family, where Zachary and Peggy Taylor often lived, a residence shared with many other relatives.

The Kentucky home of the Taylor family, where Zachary and Peggy Taylor often lived, a residence shared with many other relatives.

While the young children, including the First Lady’s beloved grandchildren, remained in the family quarters, busy with the many overnight relatives there, the young women dressed in fancy gowns to attend the endless nights of dancing at holiday balls.

All was not as joyful as it seemed for the First Lady, however. Despite the pleasure of seeing so many of her relatives and those of her husband, there was one family member whose absence was glaringly painful.

Richard Taylor.

Richard Taylor.

While the precise facts are unknown, there was some enough of an estrangement between the President and his only son, Richard. Instead of joining his family for Christmas, the First Son remained at his home, managing one of the Taylor cotton plantations.

Despite his especial closeness to his mother, Richard Taylor was never invited to come visit the White House. Not until his father died and his mother came to live with him would Richard and she be reunited.

Peggy Taylor liked her coconut cakes for Christmas. (Southern Cakes)

Peggy Taylor liked her coconut cakes for Christmas. (Southern Cakes)

Still, Peggy Taylor remained busy as hostess of the full house. A descendant would later claim that the First Lady’s great pride was seeing to the proper baking and decorating of old-fashioned coconut cakes, traditional southern dessert at Christmas, among the long buffet tables of food which she made available for the relatives coming and going during the holiday and frequently replenished.

Not all of the southern First Ladies during the antebellum period which preceded the Civil War celebrated Christmas with as expansive a spirit as did Martha Randolph, Dolley Madison, Emily Donelson, Letitia Tyler and Peggy Taylor.

Sarah Polk.

Sarah Polk.

Certainly Sarah Polk was an accomplished hostess who treated her dinner guests with a lavish touch, but it was her strict adherence to the tenets of her Methodist faith which dictated her modest marking of the Christmas holiday. She never permitted dancing, card-playing or hard liquor to be served in the White House.

Another factor which may have led Sarah Polk to treat Christmas Day without fanfare was the lack of any young presidential children or grandchildren living in the White House with her, being one of the few First Ladies who never gave birth.  Too, although the holiday fell during the capital city’s social season of balls, dinners, dances and parties, it was not yet the central focus in that era.

Joanna Rucker with her aunt Sarah Polk.

Joanna Rucker with her aunt Sarah Polk.

In 1845, during her first Christmas as First Lady, Sarah Polk did have her sister’s daughter living with her as a companion in the White House. Young Joanna Rucker was a close observer of the habits of capital society at the time. She noted that the city seemed to be universally quiet, with most people attending services in the various denominational churches.

Raised in the same faith of her aunt, Miss Rucker nevertheless had a curiosity about other faiths and that Christmas decided to attend a Catholic mass, finding it “a great deal of ceremony, burning of incense and a great deal of nonsense to me, but I say ‘everyone to his notion.’”

The Polks.

The Polks.

Two years later, Christmas Day fell on a day of the week when Sarah Polk usually hosted public receptions.

She kept it scheduled as such, rather than hosting a holiday party or even a special family dinner.

As President Polk bowed to guests while standing in front of a warm fire, the “shrewd and sensible” First Lady Polk was described as “engaged in lively conversation.”

There was no eggnog offered to guests, alcoholic or otherwise.

 

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With White House chefs, Pat Nixon previewed for the press the turkey which would serve as the main course of the First Family's 1970 Thanksgiving meal.

With White House chefs, Pat Nixon previewed for the press the turkey which would serve as the main course of the First Family’s 1970 Thanksgiving meal. (RNPL)

Among First Ladies, none instituted more public outreach in connection to the holiday of Thanksgiving than did Pat Nixon.

Knowing family recipes can be a humanizing factor in politics Pat Nixon had some of her own distributed to voters during the 1968 campaign, and continued this with her White House Thanksgiving recipes.

Knowing family recipes can humanize politics Pat Nixon had some of hers distributed to voters in 1968, and then did so with her White House Thanksgiving recipes.

Knowing, for example, that hundreds of citizens annually besieged the White House correspondence office with requests for a First Lady’s personal recipes during the holiday season, Mrs. Nixon saved time and also the expense of printing recipe cards to instead have her office issue the ingredients and cooking instructions of many of her personal favorite Thanksgiving dishes.

In fact, Mrs. Nixon realized the political value of distributing her own personal recipes of favorite family dishes, having had some of hers printed onto flyers and left on household doorknobs during the 1968 presidential primary elections.

It was surely not policy but it was one way to humanize a candidate to the voters. Even some of Mrs. Nixon’s Thanksgiving recipes, like a delicate corn souffle, managed to strike the right balance between the plain and the fancy.

Pat Nixon's Corn Souffle, the recipe for which she released to the public at Thanksgiving.

Pat Nixon’s Corn Souffle, the recipe for which she released to the public at Thanksgiving.

In 1969, timed for the National Turkey Federation presentation of its traditional gift of a bird to the President, his wife released to the nation’s newspapers, her recipe of “Chestnut and Apple Stuffing,” a name which was somewhat deliciously misleading. Along with bacon, raisins, apples and chestnuts, the recipe released to the public also called for one cup of chopped celery.

Colcannon. (thecafesucrefarine.com)

Colcannon. (thecafesucrefarine.com)

For her own Thanksgiving meal, however, Pat Nixon wanted more – a lot more according to former White House chef Henry Haller: “She insisted on having celery stuffing, which was kind of unusual for me. I was used to making stuffing with a little celery, but she liked lots of it.”

She also had a taste beyond the traditional holiday side dish of mashed potatoes, having them whipped along with mashed yellow turnips, an Irish recipe sometimes known as Colcannon, according to Haller.

And this First Lady, he said, liked roast turkey all year round.

The Nixons and  their daughters and sons-in-law in the President's Dining Room. (RNPL)

The Nixons and their daughters and sons-in-law in the President’s Dining Room. (RNPL)

Having risen in the world entirely by her own disciplined efforts to achieve through education, Pat Nixon was always conscious of others struggling, whether to thrive or simply survive.

A former teacher, she greatly relished reading stories to her two daughters when they were young, a particular favorite being “The Lame Squirrel’s Thanksgiving,” which told of an injured squirrel unable to gather his necessary nut foods to survive winter and how other forest animals joined forces to do so for him.

The story’s point of how simple offers of support from strangers could help others survive was an elemental theme of Pat Nixon’s public efforts as First Lady, an agenda of promoting regional and national voluntary organizations.

The State Dining Room, one of two rooms where senior citizens were joined by the Nixons for a Thanksgiving lunch in 1969. (RNPL)

The State Dining Room, one of two rooms where senior citizens were joined by the Nixons for a Thanksgiving lunch in 1969. (RNPL)

In 1964, a nonprofit organization known as V.I.P. , formed with the intention of widening contact between disparate and neglected communities, initiated what it hoped would become an annual tradition in the Washington area known as “The Thanksgiving Day Salute to Senior Citizens.”

Five years later, as her first holiday season as First Lady neared, Pat Nixon saw the ideas as dovetailing with her efforts, and thus hosted a special holiday meal for senior citizens who had no families with which to share the day.

There were two hundred and twenty-five guests, coming from eighteen regional retirement and assisted living facilities as guests.

Pat Nixon with the President, their daughter Julie and son-in-law David at the 1969 senior citizen Thanksgiving she hosted.

Pat Nixon with the President, their daughter Julie and son-in-law David at the 1969 senior citizen Thanksgiving she hosted.

Although the President had some repartee with a spry wisecracking ninety-three year old man, the eldest guest there, he actually ate a lunch of his favorite cottage cheese and catsup.

In late afternoon, the family flew down to their new “Winter White House” in Key Biscayne, where they enjoyed a private, traditional Thanksgiving meal.

A poster for the upbeat soft rock group The Spurrlows, who performed for Pat Nixon's 1970 White House Thanksgiving dinner for disabled servicemen.

A poster for  The Spurrlows, who performed for Pat Nixon’s 1970 White House Thanksgiving dinner for disabled servicemen.

Meanwhile, both Nixons, their daughters and son-in-law David, his grandmother the former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and her elderly uncle Joel managed to sit for a portion of the meal time with each table of guests.

Continuing with her theme, Pat Nixon organized a similar event for Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1970 but for another neglected demographic, wounded and disabled veterans.

From three area hospitals, ninety-eight servicemen and the fifteen nurses who helped push their wheelchairs and carry their stretchers were welcomed by Pat Nixon and the President for a noontime meal.

Former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower again attended her successor’s unique event and, along with the Nixons and their daughter Tricia, sat at tables with the guests.

The soft rock Spurrlows performed upbeat songs, sometimes with civic intent.

The soft rock Spurrlows performed upbeat songs, sometimes with civic intent.

Pat Nixon reminded them all that the White House is “your home,” and in recalling his own navy service during World War II, her husband spoke of how being away from a warm home during the holiday season was “the hardest thing of all” during wartime service.

And there was an added, somewhat unusual touch to the event in the form of some twenty orange-costumed teenager singers, part of a soft rock group which performed uplifting, even patriotically-themed music. Here’s a listen to the groovy Seventies sound of “The Spurrlows.”

The following year it was the First Lady and not the President who presided over the customary ceremony to accept two live turkeys from the National Turkey Federation, yet this time the event had a twist: the Poultry and Egg Board wanted in on the Thanksgiving action, and were permitted to also present at the same ceremony two frozen turkeys.

Mrs. Nixon accepted the annual live turkeys from the National Turkey Federation on November 23, 1971 but also frozen turkeys from the Dairy and Egg Society.

Mrs. Nixon accepted the annual live turkeys from the National Turkey Federation on November 23, 1971 but also frozen turkeys from the Poultry and Egg Board.

Whether or not Pat Nixon was conscious of the statement this seemed to underline, there were certainly tens of millions of more American families now dining on frozen birds rather than those freshly killed, which was more expensive.

Her substitution for her husband was believed to be due to his decision to visit the practice facility of the Washington Redskins: a fanatical football fan, he never missed watching the televised games on Thanksgiving, and was sometimes joined by Pat. It may have been a troubling ceremony for him.

The year before, looking at the turkey presented to him, he quipped, “How can you kill him! Look at his eyes” The Nixon family spent that year’s holiday in seclusion at their San Clemente, California estate “La Casa Pacifica.”

The following year was an equally quiet Thanksgiving for Pat Nixon and her family, coming just three weeks after an exhaustive campaign the First Lady undertook across the entire country by plane, on behalf of her husband’s 1972 bid for a second term, which he won. The family celebrated again in private, this time at the presidential retreat Camp David but it was not a relaxing time.

The Nixons at Camp David in November of 1973, which marked their last presidential Thanksgiving. (Ollie Aikens)

The Nixons at Camp David in November of 1973, which marked their last presidential Thanksgiving. (Ollie Aikens)

The First Lady had not gone to Camp David with her husband when he left the White House ten days before Thanksgiving to come work at the retreat in relative solitude. After their holiday meal, the President decided to abruptly leave Camp David. Eager to begin his second term plans for governmental reorganization he decided to hold meetings on the night of Thanksgiving in the West Wing with the Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development and of Transportation, rather than as originally scheduled at Camp David.

Thanksgiving of 1973 would prove to be the last one Pat Nixon had as First Lady, the Watergate scandal already beginning to mushroom, leading eventually to her husband’s resignation as president nine months afterwards. Some two weeks before Thanksgiving, the President had angrily defended himself on national television by declaring, “I am not a crook,” in a press conference. The very day before Thanksgiving, it was determined that Rosemary Woods, the President’s longtime, loyal secretary who often spent holidays with Pat Nixon and her daughters, was responsible for the erasure of part of Nixon’s secretly taped conversation about the scandal.

Now more deeply retreated from his wider staff and the public, the President absented himself from the ceremony accepting the gift turkey. So, for a second time Pat Nixon substituted and took the birds, the only First Lady to do so twice.

Just three years before her husband had all White House night lighting eliminated during a 1973 energy crisis, Pat Nixon had overseen installation of the mansion's evening illumination. (RNPL)

Just three years before her husband had all White House night lighting eliminated during a 1973 energy crisis, Pat Nixon had overseen installation of the mansion’s evening illumination. (RNPL)

The mood was made all the more somber when, due to a growing energy crisis, the President announced that the White House during the holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day would be dark, encouraging all Americans to curtail their use of electricity. Some reporters speculated that while practical, the decision surely saddened Pat Nixon.

Nearly three years before to the day, she had worked with engineers and electricians to make the landmark mansion visible at night to those in planes or visitors unable to tour its rooms by installing breathtaking floodlights.

Pat Nixon especial interest in Thanksgiving led her to achieve some unique benchmarks.

Pat Nixon especial interest in Thanksgiving led her to achieve some unique benchmarks.

Certainly, Pat Nixon’s first Thanksgiving as First Lady stands out not only among the others she experienced there, but those of all her predecessors and successors.

For while Presidents since George Washington had been issuing annual Thanksgiving proclamations, Pat Nixon is the only First Lady in history to do so. Alluding to the civil unrest over the Vietnam War in the fall of 1969 , the president’s wife stated, in part:

“[T]he Pilgrims… experienced their own times of hardship, yet were able to find hope amidst their fears. Thanksgiving gives all of us the opportunity to reflect upon the positive aspects of our lives.”

 

 

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Lady Bird Johnson accepts turkeys in Texas for her family and for the Kennedys, in 1962.

Lady Bird Johnson accepts Thanksgiving turkeys at the LBJ Ranch in Texas for her family and for the Kennedys, in 1962. (Corbis)

Like the Eisenhowers and the Kennedys before them, the LBJs most enjoyed spending their Thanksgiving holiday weekend away from the White House at their private home, among nuclear and extended family members.

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson at the wood fence of their beloved LBJ Ranch, November 1964. (LBJL)

Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson at the wood fence of their beloved LBJ Ranch, November 1964. (LBJL)

Home for Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson was a Texas ranch house, not far from Austin, in the rolling hill country near the Pedernales River. While the practical First Lady had sometimes questioned the wisdom of making the flight for just a four-day weekend every Thanksgiving, she needed little coaxing.

Not that she could have prevented her imperious husband, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, from exercising what he considered his prerogative of spending each of their White House Thanksgivings home on the ranch.

While certainly the holiday weekend in 1963, her first as First Lady, was the darkest one for Lady Bird Johnson, coming a mere seventy-two hours after the funeral and burial of President John F. Kennedy, whose assassination in Dallas, Texas had capitulated the LBJs into the White House.

A screen capture of LBJ's televised speech to the nation on Thanksgiving Day, 1963. (youtube.com)

A screen capture of LBJ’s televised speech to the nation on Thanksgiving Day, 1963. (youtube.com)

That day, rather than return to Texas, the Johnsons remained in the home where they’d lived during LBJ’s Senate and Vice Presidential years, since Mrs. Kennedy had not yet moved out. It was a quiet, sad day, the President delivering a televised address to the nation about the sorrow all were feeling that particular Thanksgiving.

As a First Lady of activity, Lady Bird Johnson was purposeful in achieving her public goals related to environmental protection and preservation, against a darkening tapestry of protests of her husband’s Vietnam War policies. As she began to approach the end portion of her time on the national stage, it was two Thanksgivings, her final ones as First Lady, which she recorded with particular poignancy.

In her diary, she recorded of Thanksgiving 1967 at the LBJ Ranch, shared with her husband, two daughter Luci and her husband Patrick Nugent, and daughter Lynda and her fiance Chuck Robb.

LBJ loved driving through Texas hill country with Lady Bird at his side in his convertible. Often, as he did on Thanksgiving 1967, he insisted on packing the car with as many people as possible - and taking the wheel  himself. (LBJL)

LBJ loved driving through Texas hill country with Lady Bird at his side in his convertible. Often, as he did on Thanksgiving 1967, he insisted on packing the car with as many people as possible – and taking the wheel himself. (LBJL)

It began, she wrote, with a sky that was “bright blue and gold,” enjoying coffee in bed as LBJ played with their grandson. They then drove around in LBJ’s convertible with the top down.

That evening, she sat down with nineteen others, relishing a “great big turkey, fat and golden…sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, green beans, lima beans, and cranberry salad, crunchy with nuts and celery. And finally, mince pie.”

She then sat down for a bridge game before friends and staff who had been guests began leaving.

As daughter Lynda and her fiance Chuck Robb, both at far left look on, President Johnson gives approval of the Thanksgiving Day turkey. (LBJL)

As daughter Lynda and her fiance Chuck Robb, both at far left look on, President Johnson gives approval of the Thanksgiving Day turkey. (LBJL)

The six Johnson family members paused before retiring, and then sat down and began to tell one another stories.

Mrs. Johnson, however, remained silently observant, and recorded:

“…Lynda’s bright and sometimes brittle vignettes of the people she meets and the events of her life, and Luci’s bubbling flow occasionally interspersed with philosophical insights sage beyond her years. Then I realized that this is really Thanksgiving…and this is what I have to be thankful for. I am reasonably satisfied with the way both of these children have turned out…I truly like their two young men…and today has been perfect and full. I shall remember this evening, I hope they will. There was more to it than many I’ve crowded with excitement and big names and important events.”

Lynda Johnson married Marine Chuck Robb in the White House, December 1967. By the following Thanksgiving he was serving in the Vietnam War. (LBJL)

Lynda Johnson married Marine Chuck Robb in the White House, December 1967. By the following Thanksgiving he was serving in the Vietnam War. (LBJL)

A fundamental shift occurred by the following Thanksgiving. That year, both of Lady Bird Johnson’s sons-in-law were at the front in the Vietnam War. Early in the day, she and her husband went into nearby Fredericksburg, Texas to attend holiday services at her parish. She recalled her feelings:

Lady Bird Johnson and the President outside of her church, St. Barnabas (LBJL).

Lady Bird Johnson and the President outside of her church, St. Barnabas (LBJL).

“I was happy to walk into St. Barnabas for one of the last times in front of ranks and flanks of cameras, all the faces good-natured today, and greet a lot of familiar people and be a part of a service with which I am much more in tune than with the Catholic or Lutheran services, which I often attend these days with my very ecumenical husband.”

Thanksgiving 1968 was packed with people, even at the private home of the LBJs.

As usual, her husband insisted that not only she but some seven other people pack all into the same car – with him at the wheel.  At lunchtime, he turned up a radio and began teaching his little grandson a jig.

As was her way, however, Mrs. Johnson focused her attention for detail on the natural world that holiday, noting the changing leaf colors of the different types of trees, and the “crisp” yet “sunny” weather.

Lady Bird Johnson hosted a large crowd at the LBJ Ranch for Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1965. (LBJL)

Lady Bird Johnson hosted a large crowd at the LBJ Ranch for Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1965. (LBJL)

Some twenty guests sat down for Thanksgiving dinner at the LBJ ranch that year. She looked around the table at them all:

“…[E]very one of us…I am sure, was thinking of how much he had to be thankful for; a year of good health; the Vietnamese war at last maybe on the long slow way toward peace; the Tax Bill passed, and thereby a rein – though a light one – put on inflation; our dollar – so threatened just a few months ago – relatively stable once more. And, in the personal realm, Chuck and Pat still all right, though far away.”

“Today was one of those glorious golden days,” concluded Lady Bird Johnson with her gift for plain yet powerful words, “when just to be alive is enough.”

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Jackie Kennedy after Thanksgiving dinner, 1967. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Jackie Kennedy after Thanksgiving dinner, 1967. (carlanthonyonline.com)

If anything, the Thanksgiving proved to heighten the sense of family, of thanks, of loss and of life for Jacqueline Kennedy. This was certainly true of the holiday in 1960. That year, Thanksgiving fell on Thursday November 24 and came just sixteen days after the life-changing event of having her husband elected President of the United States.

Days after Thanksgiving 1960, her husband rolled Jacqueline Kennedy out of Georgetown Hospital in a wheelchair after she gave birth to their son. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Days after Thanksgiving 1960, her husband rolled Jacqueline Kennedy out of Georgetown Hospital in a wheelchair after she gave birth to their son. (carlanthonyonline.com)

Being pregnant with an expectation of delivery within days, Mrs. Kennedy had a small and quiet Thanksgiving dinner with her husband and their three-year old daughter Caroline.

The next day, the President-elect flew to his family’s winter estate home in Palm Beach, Florida. And shortly thereafter, he received word on the plane taking him there that Jacqueline Kennedy had been rushed to Georgetown University Hospital unexpectedly going into labor and giving birth to their son, John F. Kennedy, Jr.

Her first Thanksgiving as First Lady proved somewhat of a disappointment.

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy and their daughter departing the White House to spend Thanksgiving 1961 with his extended family at their Hyannis, Massachusetts compound. Two years to the day that this picture was taken, he was assassinated. (AP)

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy and their daughter departing the White House to spend Thanksgiving 1961 with his extended family at their Hyannis, Massachusetts compound. Two years to the day that this picture was taken, he was assassinated. (AP)

Jacqueline Kennedy had been looking forward to hosting an early first birthday party of her son in 1961.

As she was driven from the White House with the President and their daughter, however, there was no sign of the toddler First Son.

Having developed a bad cold, it turned out, she had decided to be cautious and not have him fly up with them, nor be exposed to the frigid temperatures of the family’s compound of houses in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts.

Her consolation instead was to host a second birthday party for Charlie, her daughter’s welsh terrier dog.

Despite this being the family’s first Thanksgiving celebrated with their son as President, his parents had decided to leave their Hyannis home earlier than usual, opting instead for the warmer climate of Florida, celebrating at their Palm Beach estate.

Charlie, the Kennedy family dog, was curious about the Thanksgiving turkey traditionally presented to Presidents in 1963. Two years earlier, Jackie Kennedy hosted a birthday party for the dog over the Thanksgiving weekend. (JFKL)

Charlie, the Kennedy family dog, was curious about the Thanksgiving turkey traditionally presented to Presidents in 1963. Two years earlier, Jackie Kennedy hosted a birthday party for the dog over the Thanksgiving weekend. (JFKL)

“I miss all the noise and activity we used to have,” the senior Mrs. Kennedy told a reporter as if she were any other American grandmother.

“My children have their own children and everyone is involved in different circles,” she explained further. “I suppose it’s that way all over America – the big families don’t all congregate anymore on big holidays and that’s a shame.”

The following year, the senior Kennedys were in Hyannis when the First Lady arrived early with her children, the President to follow the day before Thanksgiving.

President Kennedy and his family on Thanksgiving 1947 at their Hyannis home, where they traditionally celebrated the holiday. (JFKL)

President Kennedy and his family on Thanksgiving 1947 at their Hyannis home, where they traditionally celebrated the holiday. (JFKL)

By all accounts, it was relaxing for her, a chance to spend the four day weekend reading while the President held meetings with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, a close friend to them both.

It is only in retrospect that this particular holiday would prove important to Jacqueline Kennedy.

That year the holiday fell on November 22.

She could not know it but that Thanksgiving marked a year to the day that she would have left with her husband.

He would be assassinated the following year, in Dallas, Texas, as she sat beside him.

Three days before Thanksgiving in 1963, Jacqueline Kennedy presided over the state funeral and burial of her assassinated husband, President Kennedy.

On Thanksgiving morning 1963, Jackie Kennedy knelt in prayer at the gravesite of her husband who'd been buried just three days earlier. (UPI)

On Thanksgiving morning 1963, Jackie Kennedy knelt in prayer at the gravesite of her husband who’d been buried just three days earlier. (UPI)

On the holiday, November 28, she agreed to interrupt the necessarily frenetic process of packing her family’s possessions in anticipation of having to move out of the White House.

She had originally planned to join Senator Edward Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Jean Kennedy Smith and Pat Kennedy Lawford, and their spouses and children on the family plane, The Caroline, in heading home to Hyannis for the traditional gathering (Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his family decided to remain at their McLean, Virginia home to celebrate the holiday there).

However, at the last minute she felt the impulse to again visit her late husband’s gravesite, and arrived later, joined by her sister and brother-in-law Lee Radziwill and Stanislaus Radziwill. Landing at Otis Air Force Base, she was whisked off to the family compound.

The extended Kennedy family gathered at their Hyannis home for Thanksgiving, though seen here at Joseph P. Kennedy's September 1962 birthday.

The extended Kennedy family gathered at their Hyannis home for Thanksgiving, though seen here at Joseph P. Kennedy’s September 1962 birthday.

Rather than go to her own Irving Street home there, she proceeded directly to the main house of her in-laws and went immediately up to see her father-in-law who remained unable to speak after having suffered a stroke two years earlier.

A family friend said she spent the holiday in “deep grief but without hysteria.”

Yet that particular Thanksgiving in Hyannis, despite the freezing cold rain which further darkened the desolate mood in the widowed First Lady’s home, she steeled herself into granting a Life magazine interview with journalist Teddy White.

In Jacqueline Kennedy's interview with Teddy White for Life magazine she dubbed her husband's presidency as Camelot. This cover story is one published six months after that famous first interview.

In Jacqueline Kennedy’s interview with Teddy White for Life magazine she dubbed her husband’s presidency as Camelot. This cover story is one published six months after that famous first interview.

Despite her grief, Jackie felt an intense obligation to leave an emotional and lingering, if romanticized, view of her beloved husband.

She proved not so much to answer any of Teddy White’s questions as she was to insistently drive into his story for Life her emphatic interpretations on how not just the American nation but the world and history itself should best remember him.

It was in that interview that she first referenced the historical comparison between her husband’s brief Administration and a mythical kingdom, an analogy which she later regretted. Still, the public’s imagination was captured by what she dubbed as “Camelot.”

The day before the tenth anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, Jackie Onassis exits her Fifth Avenue apartment, headed to her New Jersey home where she always spent Thanksgiving starting in the early 1970s.

Always beset by the camera, the day before the tenth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, Jackie Onassis exits her Fifth Avenue apartment, headed to her New Jersey home where she always spent Thanksgiving starting in the early 1970s.

In the three decades during which Jacqueline Kennedy survived her first husband, Thanksgiving weekend was a period mixed with emotions both solemn and happy.

For her, the holiday would never lose its tragic association with the JFK assassination and she would annually attend a memorial service in a Catholic church on the anniversary of his death, whether in New York near her Fifth Avenue apartment or one close to her New Jersey countryside home.

And yet, the period also marked the birthdays of her two children and these three Kennedys created a new tradition of celebrating over the four-day weekend at their New Jersey residence.

During her second marriage, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis began a new custom of spending Thanksgiving morning on a fox hunt at her New Jersey countryside home. (UPI)

During her second marriage, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis began a new custom of spending Thanksgiving morning on a fox hunt at her New Jersey countryside home. (UPI)

She also learned to develop a tradition which personally fortified her.

Each Thanksgiving morning, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis would dress in her formal riding habit, mount her horse and relish the heart-pounding foxhunts of the Essex County Hunt, flying through the bracing cold air on her large horse.

It was, many friends observed, a way of affirming life over death for a woman who had experienced tragedies and triumphs to such a great degree.

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Mamie Eisenhower looks on smilingly, beside her grandson, as the President carves a Thanksgiving turkey. (Wide World)

Mamie Eisenhower looks on smilingly, beside her grandson, as the President carves a Thanksgiving turkey. (Wide World)

While many aspects of her efforts as First Lady may now be forgotten, one bit of trivia managed to persist in presidential food lore for over half a century of Thanksgivings: Mamie Eisenhower is the First Lady with the most famous Pumpkin Pie recipe.

Mamie Eisenhower's Pumpkin Chiffon Pie recipe became ubiquitous in the 50s. (Knox Gelatin)

Mamie Eisenhower’s Pumpkin Chiffon Pie recipe became ubiquitous in the 50s. (Knox Gelatin)

With her first Thanksgiving as First Lady, in 1953, she directed her White House social secretary to respond to press inquires about her uniquely named “Pumpkin Chiffon Pie” by supplying the recipe. With that ubiquitous of postwar food additives, gelatin, as a primary ingredient, the pie was no “lo-cal” wonder but it did taste lighter than the usual pumpkin pie and it became a wild hit, the recipe printed in thousands of newspapers every Thanksgiving.

While the press was always quick to credit Mamie, food companies that used the pie recipe by making one of their products a prominent aspect, many refrained from using the name of the president’s wife in a magazine print advertisement.

For six of the eight Thanksgiving days of her tenure as First Lady, Mamie Eisenhower spent the holiday at their personal retreat, a small house dubbed “Mamie’s Cabin,” on the grounds of the Augusta National Golf Course, permitting the President to indulge his love of golf and establishing a Thanksgiving morning tradition of quail hunting.

They spent their first one of the presidency there, in 1953, with their son, his wife and grandchildren. Their arrival was the most notable aspect of their arrival, having taken their first flight on the newly-built, super-sonic Air Force One.

Mamie Eisenhower, President Eisenhower and General Montgomery sample turkey at Thanksgiving in Augusta, 1954.

Mamie Eisenhower, President Eisenhower and General Montgomery sample turkey at Thanksgiving in Augusta, 1954.

The following year they were joined by a special guest, Sir Bernard Montgomery, the British Marshal who had become a colleague and friend of Ike’s during World War II. They were also there in 1958.

Thanksgiving 1955, however, the First Lady remained vigilant in her rigorous protection of her husband, guarding the time he needed for rest and ensuring he stuck to his medically-ordained diet, having only recently returned to their Gettysburg, Pennsylvania farmhouse from Denver, Colorado where he had suffered a heart attack.

For Mamie Eisenhower, the annual holiday for which she was most personally thankful was the one she celebrated in the White House, in 1957.

Mamie Eisenhower became the first First Lady to accept the traditional gift of a turkey annually presented to the presidential family. (newstimes.com)

In 1957, Mamie Eisenhower became the first First Lady to accept the traditional gift of a turkey annually presented to the presidential family. (newstimes.com)

Only three days before Thanksgiving, President Eisenhower suffered a slight stroke. Again, the nation feared that the President’s health was in jeopardy.

But on Thanksgiving morning, as the First Lady’s limousine pulled up to National Presbyterian Church, she was followed by her husband, prompting the crowd to break into cheers and allaying fears that it had been anything but the mild stroke reported by the White House.

For their last two Thanksgivings as a presidential couple, the Eisenhowers celebrated the holiday in the White House.

In 1959, amid a national “Cranberry Crisis” set off by the Agriculture Secretary issuing a warning that some cranberries might be tainted with an insecticide, one of Mamie’s good friends, the famous movie actress Rosalind Russell who shared the holiday meal with the First Couple let it slip that the First Lady had cautiously decided to have apple sauce served instead of the traditional cranberry sauce.

The Eisenhower family at Thanksgiving following his 1952 election. (Corbis)

The Eisenhower family at Thanksgiving following his 1952 election. (Corbis)

In 1960, because her grandchildren were now regularly guarded by Secret Service agents, it was decided that they should celebrate the holiday at their own home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, rather than join their beloved grandmother “Mimi,” in the White House.

Towards the end of her tenure, Mrs. Eisenhower decided to spend Thanksgiving in Washington, to permit Secret Service agents a chance to spend at least part of the holiday with their own families, and she always wanted the agents guarding her grandchildren in Pennsylvania afforded the same opportunity.

The most meaningful, however, may have been their first Thanksgiving of his presidency, also spent in Augusta.

Three days after the Kennedy assassination,  Mamie Eisenhower and family had Thanksgiving dinner at Lamie's Tavern in New Hampshire. (Hampton Library, New Hampshire)

Three days after the Kennedy assassination, Mamie Eisenhower and family had Thanksgiving dinner at Lamie’s Tavern in New Hampshire. (Hampton Library, New Hampshire)

In his radio address to the nation on Thanksgiving Day, President Eisenhower did something nearly none of his predecessors had: he made mention of his wife, referencing her simply by her first name.

In doing so, he explained on their mutual behalf why that particular Thanksgiving of November 26, 1953 was especially valued by them and what his, admittedly idealistic vision of what the nation he led might hope for on future celebrations of the holiday:

America, of course, has countless things for which to be thankful on this November 26th. But I think the most important is this: for the first Thanksgiving in the last four, we sit down to our traditional Thanksgiving feast without the fear of the casualty list hanging over us. We don’t, longer, have to worry about the killing in Korea.

Now, my wife and I are just exactly like many thousands of other families in America tonight. We have home our son. But what is far more important than that is that our grandchildren have home their daddy; our Barbie has her husband home.

We are very, very thankful, and I am certain that I speak for thousands and thousands of other families in America, when I say: may we never again have to have our loved ones go off to war.

 

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The most recent one dozen First Ladies, from Bess Truman to Michelle Obama, all signed this one index card, five doing so with names other than their given names at birth.

The most recent one dozen First Ladies, from Bess Truman to Michelle Obama, all signed this one index card, five doing so with names other than their given names at birth.

This NFLL Blog article is adapted from a recent response to a public inquiry asking for a definitive list of the “correct” names of all of the First Ladies.

All one might state definitively about the “correct” names of First Ladies is that there are recorded names each was given at the time of their birth, in the case of earlier ones, the documentation was in the form of a church baptism. From that point on, it seems that the “real name” of a First Lady is as subjective as their own whims.

Mary Lincoln never used her maiden name "Todd" although she is now almost universally referred to with it.. (LC)

Mary Lincoln never used her maiden name “Todd” although she is now almost universally referred to with it.. (LC)

As one begins to examine the written record left by these women and how they wished to identify themselves and be identified, there are more curiosities than not involving the subject.

As she signed herself simply, "Mary Lincoln."

As she signed herself simply, “Mary Lincoln.”

For example, over the last century, the wife of Abraham Lincoln has almost universally been referred to as “Mary Todd Lincoln,” even though she never used her maiden name in any signed letters or documents. Neither did she use the middle name attributed to her in several sources: “Anne.”

Similarly, although christened with the middle name of “Rebecca,” Harriet Lane always went simply by Harriet Lane, Rosalynn Eleanor Smith Carter goes only by “Rosalynn Carter,” “Elizabeth Ann Bloomer Ford” always signed and referred to herself simply as “Betty Ford,” and Grace Coolidge dropped her middle name of “Anna.”

Florence “Mabel” Kling Harding dropped her middle name – yet used her maiden name in full. Of course, with her willful attempt to entirely keep secret from the public her common-law first husband, she never used his name of “DeWolfe.”

Eleanor Roosevelt on Fifth Avenue at Christmastime, 1940. (FDRL)

Eleanor Roosevelt on Fifth Avenue at Christmastime, 1940. (FDRL)

Laura Bush never uses her middle name of “Lane” or maiden name of “Welch,” nor does Michelle Obama use hers of “LaVaughn” and “Robinson.”

Born as Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, this famous First Lady dropped her first name and only used her middle name. Of course, she kept using her last name by marrying her distant cousin of the same name.

The woman known as Lady Bird Johnson always signed herself in business as Claudia Taylor Johnson. (Life)

The woman known as Lady Bird Johnson always signed herself in business as Claudia Taylor Johnson. (Life)

Although born as “Claudia Alta,” Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson dropped both her first and middle name and used the nickname of “Lady Bird” given to her as a baby by a nursemaid; still, on all legal documents she signed as Claudia.

In the same vein, the woman known to her friends, family and the world at large only as “Pat Nixon” never legally changed her birth first and middle name of Thelma Catherine – she just stopped using it and all others followed suit.

She did this to honor her late father, a man proud of his Irish heritage who had called his daughter Thelma his “St. Patrick’s Day babe in the morning,” since she was born on March 16th, just hours before St. Patrick’s Day.

Frances "F.C." Cleveland. (NY Historical Association)

Frances “F.C.” Cleveland. (NY Historical Association)

In a very few early examples of signatures and letters of the bride of President Cleveland, she identified herself with a “C,” as in “Frances C.F. Cleveland,” the “C” standing for her middle name of “Clara.” She then went simply to “Frances Folsom Cleveland.” After marrying for a second time, she identified herself as “Frances. F.C. Preston.”

Mrs. Kennedy, of course, went through a series of similar name changes, first signing herself as “Jacqueline Lee Bouvier,” while her newspaper column byline read simply “Jacqueline Bouvier.”

After her marriage, she often signed herself as “Jacqueline Lee Kennedy,” then dropped the “Lee.” While never known to refer to or sign herself as “Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy,” there are some documents which show her as “Jacqueline B. Kennedy.”

After her second marriage, she went through various stages of name identity: Jacqueline Onassis, Jacqueline Bouvier Onassis and then finally, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

A rare autographed photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

A rare autographed photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

As an editor, however, she often used the nickname she’d once detested and went for the simpler: “Jackie Onassis.”

Towards the end of her life, when she began complying with the many requests for her autograph which the public wrote her, she used not her real name at the time but the one which evoked the fond memories of her White House years and signed as “Jacqueline Kennedy.”

Nancy Reagan will occasionally use Nancy Davis Reagan – her middle name being that of her adoptive father.  She never uses her birth name of “Anne Frances” and never her birth maiden name of “Robbins.”

Mrs. Clinton was uniformly referenced as “Hillary Rodham” when she was the First Lady of Arkansas. She extended this to “Hillary Rodham Clinton” during her eight year tenure as First Lady.

Ironically, upon achieving political status on her own through elected office as a United States Senator and then appointed as Secretary of State, she dropped her maiden name and went simply as “Hillary Clinton.”

Although she used her maiden name on correspondence, when she went on a 1995 speaking tour and had to sign tens of thousands of books, the First Lady dropped "Rodham" for the faster autograph of just "Hillary Clinton."

Although she used her maiden name on correspondence, when she went on a 1995 speaking tour and had to sign tens of thousands of books, the First Lady dropped “Rodham” for the faster autograph of just “Hillary Clinton.”

She has never been known to use the middle name she was christened with: “Diane.”

Then there is the case of Mrs. John Quincy Adams. She always signed herself as “Louisa C. Adams,” never using her maiden name of “Johnson” but also never spelling out her given middle name of Catherine.

It seems that presidential spouses in the post-Civil War era began using the initial of their maiden names.

Rutherford Hayes's wife was the first to begin regularly signing her name with the initial of her maiden name.

Rutherford Hayes’s wife was the first to begin regularly signing her name with the initial of her maiden name.

Mrs. Hayes went by “Lucy W.,” Mrs. Garfield signed herself as “Lucretia R.,” Mrs. Harrison signed as “Caroline S.,” Mrs. McKinley as “Ida S.,” the first Mrs. Wilson as “Ellen A.” (but she did not use her middle name of Louise”) and Mrs. Taft as “Helen H.”

Mrs. Arthur usually skipped her first name entirely, but used the initials of her first, middle and maiden name, signing herself as “E.L.H. Arthur.”

Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt fluctuated between using her middle and maiden name, or just her maiden name, going as either “Edith Kermit Carow Roosevelt,” or just “Edith Carow Roosevelt.”

Lou Hoover almost always used either her maiden name’s initial or in full, as “Lou H. Hoover,” or “Lou Henry Hoover.”

Bess Truman's signature usually included the initial of her maide name, a custom that began in the late 19th century when she was born.

Bess Truman’s signature usually included the initial of her maide name, a custom that began in the late 19th century when she was born.

Bess Truman usually signed with the “W.” of her maiden name of Wallace but on occasion did not.

Mamie Eisenhower signed photographs using her full maiden name.

Mamie Eisenhower signed photographs using her full maiden name.

Mrs. Eisenhower was born with the first name of “Mamie” and the middle name of “Geneva,” after Lake Geneva.

Paradoxically, although considered a highly traditional wife, she almost never signed anything without identifying herself as “Mamie Doud Eisenhower,” or if there was limited space to sign her name “Mamie D. Eisenhower.”

Despite some recent claims that “White” was Edith Bolling Wilson’s middle name, no documentation suggests this, nor did she ever use it in her signatures.

Edith Wilson (artinamerica.com)

Edith Wilson (artinamerica.com)

As far as Edith Wilson’s first married name of Galt, neither she nor any of the First Ladies whose marriages to Presidents were their second ones retroactively use their first married name: Martha Washington never used Dandridge, Martha Jefferson never used Skelton, Dolley Madison never used Todd, Rachel Jackson never used Robards, Caroline Fillmore never used Carmichael, Edith Wilson never used Galt, Florence Harding never used DeWolfe, and Betty Ford never used Warren.

One last observation: it isn’t until one begins to encounter the First Ladies born in the Revolutionary Era that one sees these women using their full first names in any signed form other than legal documents.

Thus the first five First Ladies signed themselves with the more anonymous “M. Washington,” “A. Adams,” “D. P. Madison” and “E. Monroe” (the signature often billed as being from her pen is actually not – it is the signature of a same-named woman married to President Monroe’s nephew).

The elderly Dolley Madison. (Heritage Auctions)

The elderly Dolley Madison. (Heritage Auctions)

Starting with the first First Lady born in the 19th century – Julia Gardiner Tyler (as she always called herself, by the way) – her chronological line of successors begin to consistently use their first names.

As to the famously-named legendary First Lady Dolley Madison, there are layers of stories which require sifting before one arrives at a real answer about her real name.

Some years ago, a public auction catalog of historical manuscripts listed a letter for sale which had been written by an elderly Dolley Madison to a young woman. In it, she stated clearly that she had been named for the young woman’s mother, and that woman’s name was “Dorothea.”

As is true with much about her, even Dolley Madison's name is steeped in legend.. (Metropolitan Musuem of Art)

As is true with much about her, even Dolley Madison’s name is steeped in legend.. (Metropolitan Musuem of Art)

The former First Lady’s seeming afterthought of a remark in the closing portion of the letter has ended up resolving a question which has riddled her biographers since practically the time her story was being recorded.

Was she born and christened as “Dolley” or as “Dorothea,” which some 19th century writers suggested?

A century later, 20th century chroniclers assumed that the name “Dolley” sounded too childish for such a distinguished individual and simply made up to whole “Dorothea” name matter.

In her own handwriting, however, “Dolley” attested to originally being “Dorothea.” Even though she signed the letter with neither name, but rather as “D.P. Madison.”

Using neither Dolley nor Dorothea, the famous First Lady simply signed as D.P. Madison.

Using neither Dolley nor Dorothea, the famous First Lady simply signed as D.P. Madison.

 

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Lady Bird Johnson with two wounded servicemen, returned from the war in Vietnam, at a Fort Davis National Monument dedication ceremony in 1966. (LBJL)

Lady Bird Johnson with two wounded servicemen, returned from the war in Vietnam, at a Fort Davis National Monument dedication ceremony in 1966. (LBJL)

In her later years, former First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson would recall that the subtle way in which the Vietnam War grew to consume her husband and his presidency, it being slow and steady, yet in fits and starts, the response to a military action by communist North Vietnamese into South Vietnam, the initiation of a new strategy to prevent growing strength by the north

Mrs. Johnson greets a wounded Vietnam War servicemen at a special Christmas party she hosted for him and his comrades, 1967.

Mrs. Johnson greets a wounded Vietnam War servicemen in the Blue Room at a special Christmas party she hosted for him and his comrades, 1967.

“I couldn’t handle the war in Vietnam,” she said in 1988, “I wasn’t big enough.” Unlike all the foreign conflicts the U.S. had previously entered, the Vietnam War was one which evolved, without a formal declaration of war passed by Congress.

What Mrs. Johnson most of all recalled about the war were the mounting numbers, by the tens of thousands, of young Americans drafted to fight.

At a certain point, she never again had a day when she was unaware of the men either being sent to Vietnam or returning from there, dead, wounded or fully surviving.

One midnight, arriving back in Washington’s Union Station after an evening in New York, she noticed dozens of floral arrangements being unloaded.

Instinctively, she knew these were being sent to cover the freshly-dug graves of men killed in Vietnam.

After that, she said, “It was hard to think of anything else.”

Throughout the latter years of the Johnson Administration, there were an ever-increasing number of Vietnam vets in attendance at holiday and other receptions, oftentimes carried in on stretchers or rolled in on wheelchairs.

The meaning of being a veteran of this particular and controversial military action was never far from the consciousness of this First Lady: among them were counted her two sons-in-law.

In Vietnam, not far from the battle zone, Pat Nixon greeted wounded combat soldiers in a medic facility.

In Vietnam, not far from the battle zone, Pat Nixon greeted wounded combat soldiers in a medic facility.

While neither of Pat Nixon’s sons-in-law saw active duty in South Vietnam, the First Lady herself came close to witnessing it herself. Joining the President on a dangerous visit to the embattled nation, she was the first First Lady to enter an active combat zone since Eleanor Roosevelt.

During her time there, Mrs. Nixon spent nearly all of it focused on the troops – both those on break from the field and those being cared for in medic hospital units. American involvement in the Vietnamese conflict was ended by President Nixon in January of 1973.

The Nixons at their large POW dinner.

The Nixons at their large POW dinner.

From that time until his resignation nineteen months later, there was little direct interaction which the First Lady then had with veterans of the war, save for the notable exception of a unique White House state dinner she and the President hosted in a tent on the South Lawn for returned Prisoners of War, or POWS.

Barbara Bush with US troops in Saudi Arabia, (GBPL)

Barbara Bush with US troops in Saudi Arabia, (GBPL)

During the Vietnam War in her role as First Lady of California, Nancy Reagan undertook various efforts on behalf of those who had served in Vietnam but returned home wounded and disabled.

When she agreed to write a syndicated newspaper column, she turned over the proceeds to the National League pf Families of American POW-MIA.

In more recent years, First Ladies have continued to give focus on members of the armed services and veterans.

During the Gulf War, Barbara Bush joined her husband in visiting troops at their bases in the Middle East, once sharing a Thanksgiving with them.

Hillary Clinton greets troops at Tuzla air base, Bosnia, March 25, 1996.

Hillary Clinton greets troops at Tuzla air base, Bosnia, March 25, 1996.

As First Lady Hillary Clinton became a strong advocate for the first full investigation into the damage caused to many veterans by the chemical “Agent Orange,” and prompted congressional action on their behalf.

Laura Bush at a ceremony following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Laura Bush at a ceremony following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Although public accessibility to the White House became limited after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Laura Bush made tours and events like the Easter Egg Roll especially available to the families of active military fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan; she also made frequent trips to Walter Reed Hospital’s rehabilitative center.

Few First Ladies have so overtly committed to the well- being of active and retired members of the U.S. military and their families than has Michelle Obama.

Michelle Obama ande Jill Biden abut to speak at one of the first Joining Forces events.

Michelle Obama ande Jill Biden abut to speak at one of the first Joining Forces events.

Since she became First Lady, she has focused primarily on two public campaigns, “Get Moving!” which involves nutrition and exercise, and also “Joining Forces.”

Mrs. Obama jointly undertook the creation of “Joining Forces,” from a 2008 campaign promise she made during the primaries and with Second Lady Jill Biden, she has helped establish its developing of numerous programs providing support to military families with health care, housing, employment and socialization.

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