Can Members of Congress Get Christmas Presents?

It’s tradition for many Americans to swap gifts during the holidays. But does the tradition of holiday gift-giving also apply in Congress, where Senators, Representatives, and their staff face ethics rules on the kinds of presents they can receive?

In short, members of Congress can receive Christmas presents, although there are a lot of limitations. According to ethics rules, members can receive gifts valued at no more than $50, as long as the gift isn’t from a registered lobbyist or foreign agent.  A notable exception to this rule is family members, so members of Congress have nothing to worry about when it comes to exchanging gifts at home on Christmas morning.

However, the rules get a little tricky when involving gifts from non-familial relationships. Friends and romantic partners, like boyfriends and girlfriends, can give gifts valued at up to $250 to members and staff. Beyond this amount, any gift is subject to approval from the House and Senate ethics committees. To receive approval, a legislator or staff member must disclose the approximate value of the gift, the relationship to the gift-giver, and the gift-giver’s occupation. A notable exception to this rule is fiancés and fiancées, who are considered to be in the same category as family members under ethics rules.

While punishments for violating gift-giving rules can range from a warning to a fine, no lawmaker has been punished for accepting a Christmas gift since current rules were first adopted in 2007.

A Forgotten Gift-Giving Tradition in the Senate

Long before ethics rules were imposed, there was once a strong tradition of exchanging Christmas presents among Senate staffShortly after Christmas was made a national holiday in 1857 and the Senate began to take a brief holiday recess, Senate staff began a tradition of exchanging gifts. Key examples from the early days of gift-giving include a gold-topped cane for a longtime Senate page supervisor in 1862 and a lump of coal for the Senate Sergeant at Arms in 1902, which was actually used to heat the Capitol.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Christmas gift-giving tradition in the Senate became more focused on pages.  California Senator Leland Stanford gave each Senate page a five-dollar gold coin each Christmas during the 1880s and 1890s, and Vice President Thomas Marshall began a tradition in 1913 hosting an annual Christmas dinner with Senate pages in the Senate dining room. This tradition continued for 20 years and generally involved a gift exchange between the pages and the Vice President.

However, the tradition came to an end in 1933 with the adoption of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which moved the start of the annual congressional sessions from December to January.  As a result, pages were no longer on duty in the Capitol during the holidays, and the Senate’s gift-exchange tradition faded into history.

How Christmas Trees Became a Tradition in the White House

First Lady Jill Biden kicked off the holiday season in Washington when she accepted the White House’s official Christmas tree on November 22c– an 18.5-foor Fraser fir hailing from Jefferson, North Carolina.  Christmas trees have a long tradition in the White House that, like many presidential traditions, have no clear point of origin and speak to the rich history of America’s most important residence.

Origins and Development of a Tradition

For much of the 19th Century, Christmas was observed privately in the White House, a far cry from the ceremonious tradition observed today.  President John Adams and his family celebrated the first White House Christmas in December 1800, just two months after the second President moved into the newly constructed Executive Mansion, as it was originally known.   

It’s not entirely clear who was the first president to display a Christmas tree in the White House.  Some sources point to President Franklin Pierce, who was in office from 1853 to 1857, while others say President Benjamin Harrison was the first to bring in a tree in 1889.  According to accounts, Harrison displayed the tree in the Yellow Oval Room on the second floor, which was used as a library and parlor for the First Family at that time.  Since electricity had yet to be installed in the White House, wax candles were used to light the tree.  Lights with electric bulbs didn’t appear on the White House Christmas tree until 1894 under President Grover Cleveland.

Over the course of the 20th Century, various presidents developed and formalized the traditions of the White House Christmas tree.  In 1924, the District of Columbia Public Schools gifted the White House a “National Christmas Tree” that was erected on the Ellipse south of the White House, and President Calvin Coolidge led a lighting ceremony on Christmas Eve with a separate tree that was donated from Middlebury College in Vermont. 

In 1929, President Henry Hoover placed a Christmas tree in the Blue Room, which has since been home to the official White House Christmas tree.  First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy began the tradition of themed decorations in 1961 by including characters from the “Nutcracker Suite” ballet as ornaments.  Other themes for decorations displayed over the years include First Lady Bird Johnson’s gingerbread men decorations, and in 2013, First Lady Michelle Obama featured holiday greeting cards from military servicemembers.  For 2021, the First Family selected a “gifts from the heart” theme that honors military service members and COVID-19 first responders.

Christmas Tree Selection

Since 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA) has selected and presented the White House with its official Christmas tree.  Each year, tree growers, industry experts, and consumers vote in a national contest held by the NCTA to select the tree grower who will provide that year’s official White House tree.  To qualify for the contest, growers must first win state or regional competitions.  The most selected type of tree is fir, with spruces being a distant second.Since the NCTA formalized the selection process over a half-century ago, 13 trees have come from North Carolina, 10 have come from Pennsylvania, and eight have hailed from Wisconsin.