It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas at the White House, as First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed the White House Christmas tree this past weekend, and today she unveiled 2012’s decorations and theme — “joy to all” — at a White House holiday event for military families. This is especially meaningful, considering the Blue Room tree is decorated this year with ornaments made by children whose military parents are based around the world.
Michelle’s motif for the White House Christmas tree is the latest in a long line of themes, beginning when Jackie Kennedy first decorated it with Nutcracker Suite ornaments in 1961 (a popular theme that both Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton used during their time as first ladies).
Since President Benjamin Harrison and his family first introduced the indoor White House Christmas tree in the upstairs oval room in 1889, first wives have been integral in taking part in presidential holiday traditions. From the first White House gingerbread house in 1972 to the inaugural Hanukkah party in 2001, see our US presidents’ better halves spread holiday cheer in Washington DC each December. As we dive into the holiday season, take a look back at how first ladies like Jackie Kennedy, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama got in the Christmas spirit over the years.
In 1961, First Lady Jackie Kennedy began the tradition of having an annual theme for the White House Christmas tree. For her first year, she chose the “Nutcracker Suite,” which would become a popular one — both Barbara Bush (1990) and Hillary Clinton (1996) used the same ballet-inspired theme in their years as first ladies. Here are the Kennedys standing by the inaugural tree in the Blue Room.
First Lady Lady Bird Johnson‘s daughter Lynda posed with Johnson grandchildren Patrick Lyndon Nugent and Lucinda Robb in front of the tree in 1968, the year its theme was “19th-century gingerbread tree.”
First Lady Pat Nixon stood beside the first White House gingerbread house in 1972. This would become an annual tradition that continues to this day. The tree theme for 1972 was “Still Life With Fruit and Nature’s Bounty,” paintings by Severin Roesen.
First Lady Betty Ford smiled in the Blue Room in front of the 1975 White House tree, decorated with used ornaments from 1974, plus new handmade ones in keeping with the “old-fashioned children’s Christmas” theme made by Colonial Williamsburg artisans. The materials included paper snowflakes, acorns, dried fruits, pinecones, vegetables, straw, cookies, and yarn.
First Lady Rosalynn Carter inspected the White House gingerbread house in 1979, the year that the tree’s theme was “American folk art of the colonial period.” President Carter also made history in 1979 by being the first president to officially recognize the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah in addition to Christmas at the White House. He delivered a speech in Lafayette Park and lighted the new National Menorah — a tradition that continues to this day.
First Lady Nancy Reagan trimmed the White House Christmas tree in 1982 with foil paper cones, metallic snowflakes, and ornaments made by patients at Second Genesis, a drug-treatment program.
First Lady Barbara Bush placed a star atop the national Christmas tree in 1992, when the theme was “gift givers.” White House florists crafted 88 gift-giving characters for the tree that year.
First Lady Hillary Clinton showed off the traditional gingerbread house that was part of the 1999 White House Christmas decorations.
First Lady Laura Bush revealed the details of a gingerbread house in the State Dining Room in 2004. While George W. Bush was in office, the family’s Scottish terrier, Barney, made an appearance in the gingerbread mansion as a tiny marzipan dog figurine. Barney cookies were also a popular treat at Bush holiday parties, and he even starred in a video short that year titled “A Red, White, and Blue Christmas.”
Michelle Obama showed her handmade cookie Christmas ornament to the press while hosting children of active duty military service members in the State Dining Room last year. The 2011 Christmas tree theme was “shine, give, share,” incorporating medals, badges, and patches from all of the military branches.