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. 

The Intriguing History behind Presidential Turkey Pardons

Last Friday, President Joe Biden pardoned two turkeys named Peanut Butter and Jelly from Jasper, Indiana. Turkey pardons at the White House have been happening for as long as many of us can remember, but the tradition didn’t just appear out of the blue. When did the Commander in Chief start liberating turkeys, and what happens after the turkeys are pardoned?

Origins of the Turkey Pardon

The earliest example of a turkey getting its freedom at the White House goes back to Abraham Lincoln. In 1963, the Great Emancipator spared a turkey that his family planned to eat for Christmas at the urging of his son Tad. The turkey remained as Tad’s pet for at least another year.

Over the following decades, turkeys were occasionally donated to the president as gifts. Starting in 1873 during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, a Rhode Island man named Horace Vose gifted a turkey to the White House for Thanksgiving and kept up the tradition for the next 40 years.

By the time Vose died in 1913, the tradition of sending turkeys to the White House had gained visibility, and other organizations took up the opportunity to continue the tradition. In 1921, the American Legion sent a turkey to President Warren G. Harding, and in 1925, First Lady Grace Coolidge accepted a turkey from the Vermont Girl Scouts. In 1947, the National Turkey Federation took ownership of the tradition when it sent President Harry S. Truman a Thanksgiving turkey.

However, the first turkey to be set free on Thanksgiving was in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy granted a “reprieve” to a turkey sent to the White House. During the presidencies of Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter, turkeys were occasionally spared and sent to live on a farm or petting zoo.

Use of the term “presidential pardon” did not come until 1987, when President Ronald Reagan jokingly used the term in a turkey presentation ceremony. During the ceremony, Reagan quipped that he would pardon the turkey in response to a question from ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson on whether he would pardon Oliver North and John Poindexter, who were at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal. Since Reagan, every US president has maintained the tradition of pardoning a turkey on Thanksgiving.

The Turkey Selection Process

The National Turkey Federation has managed the turkey selection process for nearly 75 years. The White House turkeys are raised in the same manner as other turkeys bred for consumption and are typically raised on the farm of whoever currently chairs the National Turkey Federation.  From an initial flock of 40-80 turkeys, a group of 20 is selected based on size and tameness. Handlers then familiarize this group with human contact and music so the turkeys are accustomed to the noises and sounds of a White House ceremony. This group of turkeys are then winnowed down to two finalists who are sent to Washington for the pardoning ceremony. 

What Happens to the Pardoned Turkeys?

All pardoned turkeys go to a pen specifically built for them at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. The pen includes a small coup to protect the turkeys from the elements plus an area where tourists can stop by to view them.

Unfortunately, however, the turkeys don’t stick around Mount Vernon for too long. Since the turkeys are bred for consumption, their high-protein diet increases their weight to the point that it puts undue stress on their organs, meaning the turkeys only live for another year or two at most after their pardon.