CHRISTMAS WITH THE
y my reckoning, 1997 saw the 196th Christmas at the White House, from John Adams to the present incumbents, the Clintons. What stories the old walls could tell if they could speak! Diary entries, letters and biographies all have recorded some of these seasonal events, and below is a tantalising glimpse of a few. The bibliography for just these few runs to dozens of books and papers.
Accounts of Washington's Christmases are scanty. George Washington spent Christmas night 1776 crossing the Delaware River in dreadful conditions. This event, covered in hundreds of poems and stories is heroic rather than nostalgic! Christmas 1777 fared little better - at Valley Forge, Washington and his men had a miserable Christmas dinner of Fowl cooked in a broth of Turnips, cabbage and potatoes. But in 1783 he retired, and spent Christmas at Mount Vernon with his family and there was 'rousing cheers, song, pistol shots and firecrackers'.
His retirement brought a new Christmas pastime to Washington - long before the custom of sending Christmas cards was to become popular, the retired president would spend his time writing Christmas letters.
A relation who spent that Christmas with the Washington's wrote this account:
"I must tell you what a charming day I spent at Mt. Vernon with Mama and Sally. The General and Madame came home on Christmas Eve and such a racket as the servants made. They were glad of their coming. Three handsome young officers came with them. All Christmas afternoon people came to pay their respects and duty. Among these were stately dames and gay young women. The General seemed happy and Mrs Washington was up before daybreak making everything as agreeable as possible."
That was the last Christmas reported from Mount Vernon. John Adams took his place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which was known only as 'The Presidents House' at that time - it became known as the White House later. President Adams went on record as being the first president to hold a childrens party at the residence. This was for his young granddaughter, Susannah, and it appears from records of the time they had as many mishaps as any childrens party! One child broke a dish belonging to Susannah, who in return bit off the nose of the new wax doll which had been the Christmas tree present for her little guest!
A happier scene was the Christmas of 1805, when Thomas Jefferson celebrated a Christmas party with his six grandchildren. To a party of 100 guests, the president played a merry jig on his fiddle.
In fact some of the merriest accounts of the presidential Christmases are those where there were children or grandchildren. President Jackson, 18291837, is said to have enjoyed snowball fights with his little guests from a local orphanage. Jackson's wife had died early, and he shared his residence with relatives. One day his nephew asked, "Did you ever hear of a Christmas without presents, Uncle Andrew?" and the great man replied,
"Yes, once there was a little boy who never had a toy, and when his mother died he was all alone in the world. I was that boy".
As a result of this he made sure that there were plenty of presents, both practical and frivolous, under the tree for the children he had in his home.
There have been many other childrens parties, too numerous to mention in this short chapter; Theodore Roosevelt's wife issued invitations to some 600 children to a party where adults and nurses were not admitted except to attend the most timid of children, who feasted on creamed oysters among other things; but one more merits attention. Herbert C Hoover and his family gave their first presidential Christmas party at the White House in 1929, with carol singing by candlelight around the big dark house, but their second Christmas in office was quite different. There was a deep Depression after the Wall Street crash, and everywhere conditions were bad. Christmas would not come to many homes in 1930, so the First Lady decided to hold a special party. She sent out a most unusual invitation which read as follows:
Peggy, Ann and Peter
request the pleasure of the company of
on Wednesday, December twenty-third
from half after three to five o'clock
THE WHITE HOUSE
This is not like the Christmas parties you usually go to, where you get lots of toys and presents to take home, and very good things to eat.
But it is a party where you bring toys and warm gay sweaters or candy, or things other children would like who otherwise would not have much Christmas.
For Santa Claus has sent word that he is not going to be able, by himself, to take care of all the little boys and girls he wants to this year, and he has asked other people to help him as much as possible.
So if you bring some presents with you, we will send them all to him to distribute. And we will send most of the candy and 'snappers' and cake and 'such' to him too!
The party was a great success, and the lack of real gifts was made up for by the entertainments - the band of the US Marines played Christmas tunes, there was storytelling, and every child had small favours, usually noisy ones such as tooters etc!
Then in 1981, the Reagans held a Christmas party for children who were hearing impaired. The entertainment was provided by two members of the Osmonds, who themselves had hearing difficulties, and Mrs Reagan learnt some simple phrases in sign language. The Presidents speech that year was very child orientated, he said, " Christmas means so much because of one special child. But Christmas also reminds us that all children are special, that they are gifts from God, gifts beyond price that mean more than any presents that money can buy. In their love and laughter, in our hopes for their future, lies the true meaning of Christmas".
Not all White House Christmases have been for children of course, and there are many accounts of elegant balls and fine dinners, such as the one described by the local reporter accounting a party held by the President and Mrs Polk in 1847, where the scene was described as, "On entering I found a comfortable room full, with President Polk standing before the fire bowing and shaking hands.
The First Lady of the Land was seated on the sofa, engaged with some half a dozen ladies in lively conversation; and though ill and clumsy in millinery, yet I will try to describe what she had on. A Maroon-coloured velvet dress, with short sleeves, trimmed with very deep lace, and a handsome pink head-dress was all that struck the eye of the general observer."
The most unusual, especially for its time, was the party given by President Bucanan, who was without the company of a First Lady, and considered a 'lonely man'. In 1857 he gave a party for thirty American Indians from the tribes of the Poncas, Pawnees and Pottowatomies. A report of the day stated that while the Pottowatomies arrived in 'citizens dress', the Pawnees and Poncas 'were in their grandest attire, and more than profuse of paint and feathers'.
The latest in the hundreds of presidential Christmas accounts was the account of the 1997 White House theme, which was based on Christmas as seen through the eyes of a child. The description of the traditional Gingerbread House set up in the State Dining Room sums up this theme without further comments!
"The traditional Gingerbread House....depicts a Santa's Victorian home complete with his workshop, reindeer stables, and Santa with his sleigh preparing for departure from his rooftop. Within his workshop, you can see Santa's Elves busy at work surrounded by toys made of candy, marzipan and chocolate. Socks can be seen in Santas sleigh, preparing to help him with the busy night ahead. The gingerbread house consists of 80 pounds of gingerbread, 40 pounds of chocolate and 10 pounds of marzipan, and is entirely edible. The White House pastry chefs created this delicious and fanciful masterpiece."
COLONIAL AMERICA GINGERBREAD4 cups strong flour
1 cup melted butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup pure molasses
1 vanilla pod crushed and steeped overnight in
½ cup single cream or full milk
Grated ring and juice one lemon
2 teaspoons ginger
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon Cinnamon
1½ teaspoon Baking powder
½ teaspoon Salt
Combine all dry ingredients except flour Mix well. Melt butter with cream, strained of its vanilla pod , and the molasses. Add the lemon. Mix. Add flour gradually stirring all time. The dough should be stiff enough to handle without sticking to your fingers. If it does, add just a little more flour. Knead for a smooth texture. Roll out to ¼" thick on a floured surface, and cut with whatever shapes you wish. Bake on a floured board at 375F for about 12 mins. They should spring back to the touch, but will harden as they cool.