Tree-Trimming Anecdotes, Wartime Blackouts : Dreaming of a White House Christmas

Associated Press

Tinsels of trivia from the White House Christmas tree:

- Benjamin Harrison trimmed the first White House Christmas tree in 1889 in the oval study on the second floor, then used as a library.

- Grover Cleveland in 1895 had the first set of electric lights strung on a White House tree. The bulbs were hand-blown and wired individually.

Washington in New York

- George Washington spent his first Christmas as President in New York, which was then the capital, and wrote in his diary on Dec. 25, 1789, "went to St. Paul's chapel in forenoon." Queen Victoria's husband, the German Prince Albert, decorated Windsor Castle's first Christmas tree in 1841, and the custom gradually caught on in America.

- Calvin Coolidge lit the first outdoor tree on the White House grounds in 1923, a 70-footer from the campus of Middlebury College in his native Vermont, but declined to say a few words for the NBC radio microphones.

- Two years later, Silent Cal changed his mind and broadcast the first presidential Christmas message.

- An air raid shelter was being dug on the South Lawn while workmen erected the outdoor White House tree in 1941.

Living Evergreens

- Since 1973, living evergreens have replaced cut trees as the National Community tree.

- Franklin D. Roosevelt grew Christmas trees as a cash crop on his Hyde Park estate and always listed his occupation as "farmer" on government forms.

- The national Christmas tree was dimmed during the World War II blackout of the capital. It was dimmed again, except for the star at top, in 1979 and 1980 in remembrance of the 52 U.S. hostages held in Iran.

- Betty Ford had popcorn, acorns, peanuts and other natural ornaments strung on the tree in the East Room in 1975. Gerald R. Ford, the year before, addressed a classic greeting to the glittering 20-footer: "A few months ago neither one of us expected to be in the White House."

- To make way for the tree in the Blue Room, a one-ton cut-glass chandelier is removed from the ceiling each year.

Wrapped Own Gifts

- Eleanor Roosevelt wrapped her own gifts and personally addressed all her Christmas cards.

- The Eisenhower Administration began the tradition of sending official Christmas cards to all friendly heads of state, Cabinet members, department heads and members of Congress.

- Backstairs Washington gossip whispered of a flaming row between President Warren G. Harding and his wife on Christmas Day in 1921.

- Dolley Madison in 1813 served the Christmas goose with all the trimmings on a huge gilded mirror ordered from France. After the British burned the White House, she spent the next three Christmases in a rented frame house three blocks farther up Pennsylvania Avenue, at the corner of 19th Street, where her parrot in the window squawked a greeting to the tourists. Until her death in 1849, the vivacious Dolley, who had also served as First Lady for the widowed Thomas Jefferson, was a fixture at every White House Christmas party.

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