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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”