White House Celebrations

White House Celebrations
Grace Coolidge: Religion, Social Issues and Reform

Skill: Middle School
Time Required:


Grace Coolidge is responsible for numerous White House Christmas traditions.  In 1923, she gave permission for the District of Columbia Public Schools to erect a Christmas tree in President’s Park (now know as Ellipse Park).  Organizers named it the “National Christmas Tree.”   President Calvin Coolidge became the first president to light the Christmas tree.  The night of the Christmas tree lighting the “President’s Own” Marine Band quartet performed a choral concert which was followed by the first White House Christmas caroling.  In 1925, the Coolidges arranged for the Christmas tree lightening ceremony to be broadcast over radio and thus began another White House Christmas tradition.


In this lesson, students will examine the principle of separation of church and state by examining White House holiday traditions.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet and/or access to a public library.


Begin the lesson by having students survey the website and/or books listed below regarding White House celebrations.
When this survey is complete explain to students that one of the first laws of our nation was the Old Deluder Satan Act of 1647.  The premise behind this act was that if children were taught to read, they would read the Bible and delude Satan.  In other words, one of the first laws of our land firmly joined church and state.
However, when the United States Constitution was enacted the concept of separation of church and state was put in place.  Though a law of the land, much controversy has and continues to exist regarding the malleable, fuzzy, gray line between separation of church and state. This blurry line is quite apparent in White House celebrations.
Have students read about separation of state via the link or books indicated below.
Once students have completed their reading have each student write a pro/con essay regarding their thoughts on this topic.

Extending the Lesson:

To extend this lesson, have a class discussion about separation of church and state and your school.  What are the types of celebrations in your school and how are they tied to religion?  For example, if you have a winter celebration just before the Christmas holiday, but not just before the Hanukkah or Kwanzaa holidays, regardless of name, it is still tied to religion. Should public school breaks be scheduled around Christian holidays?  Should the Pledge of Allegiance be recited in schools?  Do you have any celebrations in which some students must leave?  When must some students not attend school because of certain holidays that are not honored by the school?  Should school lunches be provided on the fasting days of some religions?

Sources & Resources:

Separation of Church and State
Deck the Halls 
Pageant of Peace
History of Easter Egg Roll
Menorah Lighting at the White House
Kwanzaa Presidential Message
Past White House Holiday Themes
   Brenner, Lenni.  Jefferson and Madison on the Separation of Church and State. Fort Lee: Barricade Books, 2004. 

   Caroll, Boyd Betty.  Inside the White House. New York: Readers Digest, 1999. 
   Church, Forrest.  The Separation of Church and State: Writing on a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004. 
   Clinton, Hillary. An Invitation to the White House: At Home with History.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. 
   Dreisbach, Daniel L.  Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State.  New York: NYU Press, 2003. 
   Hamburger, Philip.  Separation of Church and State.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. 
   Lambert, Frank.  The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003. 
   Menendez, Albert J.  Christmas in the White House.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983. 
   Monkman, Betty C. and White, Bruce M. The White House: Its Historic Furnishings and First Families.  Abbevillw Press, 2000. 
   Seeley, Mary Evans.  Season’s Greetings from the White House. Washington D. C.: Presidential Christmas, 2002. 

Credits: This lesson was written by Debra L. Clark, Kent State University