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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.