Apparently it was “Silent Cal” Coolidge who initiated the customs of both the national Christmas Tree (in 1923) and the presidential Christmas Card (in 1927). The former began as a subtle promotion for Coolidge’s state of Vermont, which sent along the tree, while the latter custom seems to have emerged from Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge’s sincere appreciation for the large number of condolence and Christmas cards they received after the sudden death of their youngest son from blood poisoning in 1924. The Christmas Cards from the Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt and Truman administrations are pretty sedate, which makes sense considering they were issued in an era dominated by the Depression and World War, but things begin to liven up with the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras: could White House Christmas cards be signs of the times?
I was going to showcase chronological Christmas cards by administration, but frankly the pre-1960 ones were pretty boring. A completely representative example is this 1941 card below, but its simplicity and sedateness is understandable–this was only a few weeks after Pearl Harbor.
The first National Christmas Tree, 1923; Library of Congress; the Roosevelt 1941 Christmas Card, White House Historical Association.
Looking at all these cards, I became fixated on those showing White House interiors in general, a tradition that began with the Kennedy Administration, and the Green Room in particular: I’m a big Red Room fan too, but the Green Room Christmas cards really capture the essence of the season for me. So here they are: Green Room Christmas cards from the Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton administrations. The first one, by illustrator Edward Lehman, is obviously the most poignant (and valuable), as it was issued only a few weeks after President Kennedy’s assassination to only a select few–primarily White House staff. Twenty years after the Lehman image, interior designer Mark Hampton reproduced the newly-redecorated Green Room in watercolor for the Reagan’s 1983 Christmas Card. And finally, the Clinton’s 1996 Christmas card by artist Thomas McKnight.
The Green Room decorated for the Holidays this season, with wreaths and trees made of recycled newspapers and magazines, illustrating the theme “Reflect, Rejoice, and Renew”.