The White House and Holidays Past

Even in the 1920s, the economy had quite an effect on the holidays, starting with changes for the president and his family. In 1928 Herbert Hoover and his wife had done their holiday shopping in Rio de Janeiro and celebrated Christmas Day on a battleship traveling back from their good-will tour of Latin America. It was reported that in 1929 they were to celebrate very differently. Here are some of the aspects of the Hoovers’ 1929 celebration:

The White House Christmas dinner featured two turkeys that were killed by one of the President’s secretaries, Lawrence Richey. Richey also gave the White House staff half of his other killings, three pheasants and two mallard ducks. “Mr. Richey is by no means a frail man, but when he entered the White House with all those birds hung over his shoulders, he had some difficulty walking.” (The New York Times, 12-24-29)

The president personally inspected the Christmas trees decorating the White House, and Mrs. Hoover carried on the first-lady tradition of handing out gifts to children from the Central Union Mission. The “rollicking spirit of the occasion and the surging of hundreds of tumultuous youngsters about her” prevented Mrs. Hoover from giving each gift to an appropriate child but the gifts were distributed and matched up later. “With a Christmas tree as a background, the First Lady, wearing a dark red velvet frock and a small red hat pulled closely over the softly waved white hair, fitted into the decorative scheme.”

In 1939, Eleanor Roosevelt used the press conference held in December to discuss both her Christmas plans and her youth projects. While The New York Times report gave more space to her holiday activities, the first lady’s plans for her youth projects were addressed first. She talked of projects that involved the “training of girls between the ages of 18 and 25,” noting that it was as important to make useful citizens of girls as of boys. The article goes on to report Mrs. Roosevelt’s holiday plans in both New York and Hyde Park and the family members who planned to be in attendance. Among the plans for December 24 were the President himself reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol aloud to the family.

Unfortunately, the Roosevelt holiday was marred by an accident. On December 29, Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr., who was a law student at the University of Virginia, and his wife, the former Ethel du Pont, were in a car crash. As soon as Eleanor heard the news, the First Lady rushed the 72 miles to the Winchester, Virginia hospital where the young couple was being treated. They had attended a Polish relief ball at a private home in Virginia, and as they were returning to Washington, their car hit a parked truck. The sheriff of Clarke County investigated the accident and reported that the accident was unavoidable. A truck had become stalled on a mountain, the road was icy, and there was no opportunity for the Roosevelt car to stop in time to avoid hitting the truck. The young couple and the truck driver were all released from the hospital with only minor injuries.

But perhaps a story relating to Truman in 1949 holds the most meaning for our current president. In the article (NYT, 12-11-49), Truman is described as the “busiest President in American history.” The White House physician, Brigadier General Wallace H. Graham, told a reporter that Truman had benefited from his two-week stay in Key West at the Winter White House, but Graham noted that the strain of office is tremendous. “He has so much to read and go over — so much comes to him. It tires both the mind and body.”

After a break from the rigors of Washington, Truman obviously perked up and felt relaxed enough to think of some simple pranks to play on staff members. One idea, however, he considered and then abandoned. Some of his assistants, including special counsel Clark Clifford, had traveled to Havana over the holiday. Mr. Truman thought it might be fun to have the customs agents “bottle them up” for a good long while on their return home. But then he realized it wouldn’t work — the men would simply call the President and ask him to get them out of their predicament.

Today, even if a president were to contemplate such a prank, I don’t think the “inconvenience” of being the staff members’ first call would be the only thing holding the President back from such an idea. Times have certainly changed.

If you would like to receive my e-newsletter about holiday shopping and toys of the past, send an e-mail to: [email protected] with “holiday” in the subject line.

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