Christmas trees were banned from the White House until these two boys decided to do something drastic
There are some Christmas traditions you can’t break. It’s like breaking a blood covenant against Kris Kringle or smacking your beloved Elf on the Shelf straight on the mouth. It’s just not done, not without major repercussions, at least. So tell us, faithful readers, why did Teddy Roosevelt—the man’s man of America—nearly ban Christmas trees from the White House for life?
1. A Christmas requiem
Christmas is a time to celebrate the coming of a new year with friends and family, whether it’s at home next to a blazing hearth, or at a local club that plays “Jingle Bell Rock.” Whatever your Christmas traditions are, there’s one thing we cannot deny ourselves during the holiday season—having a Christmas tree.
Imagine it: lit up with twinkling little lights, dressed up with ornaments and smelling fresh like pine. Add a waft of cinnamon from your favorite candle, and holy cannoli! You practically have the North Pole in your living room. The country celebrates the Douglas fir by adding pizzazz, even in our nation’s capital.
2. The White House has decorated Christmas trees since 1889
Over the course of 125 years, the White House has welcomed Christmas trees into their decadent halls, bringing in the holiday cheer. However, there was one particular president who—unfortunately—did not take to putting up a piece of evergreen heaven in the living room. What kind of Scrooge would do that? We’ll tell you who: Teddy Roosevelt.
Is that surprising? The man was known for his love of nature. He’s practically John Muir’s twin (they basically had the biggest bromance in American history). Teddy Roosevelt is the granddaddy of environmental conservation. The last thing he wanted was to set a poor example by chopping down trees simply for decoration.
3. He banned Christmas trees from the White House
After Theodore Roosevelt was inaugurated into office in 1901, he paved what scholars later dubbed a “nature renaissance.” At the turn of the 20th century, the public was heavily focused on the environment and conversation during the Industrial Revolution, bringing people back to nature. With his influence, Teddy protected about 230 million acres of national parks, monuments, forests, and wildlife refuges.
So, it’s no surprise that on Christmas of 1903, Teddy declared he was prohibiting the trees that he loved dearly from entering the White House. By declaring the ban, he thought he would set an example for Americans to do the same. However, not all members of the Roosevelt party were thrilled.
4. He was mischievous of the six
No one was more anxious for the holidays to arrive than Archie Roosevelt, the fifth of the six Roosevelt children. There was something miraculous about fresh powdered snow littering the White House lawns and trees. To Archie, the holidays meant a time of pleasantries, of hot cocoa, snow angels, Santa, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Plus, when your dad is a national hero, you expect him to talk about his adventures as a Rough Rider. He and his brother Quinten would run loose in the White House, throwing snowballs at the members of the Secret Service. However, the boys received a huge shock when their father delivered some terrible news.
5. Christmas was beginning to become popular
Christmas wasn’t always a popular holiday. In fact, it was just gaining significant popularity around the end of the 19th century. German immigrants came in droves, and they brought their customs and traditions with them, including the wreath and advent calendar. The most important custom, however, was bringing in an evergreen fir tree and decorating it with ornaments.
The ornaments consisted of candles, strings of popcorn, fruit, and bright ribbons. During the tumultuous time of the Civil War, good cheer and peace was a welcome breath of fresh air. Missing their families, people embraced the holiday and the associated traditions. By 1870–80, gift-giving blossomed and Christmas came into full swing. Of course, the Roosevelts were no exception.
6. Theodore Roosevelt bans Christmas Trees
One evening early in December, Teddy called his family together to make an important announcement. As his smiling children came around, and with his wife behind him, the POTUS made an announcement: There will be no Christmas tree. Every smile flattened. For Archie, it turned into a deep-set frown.
For a young boy of nearly 10, Christmas wasn’t the same without a tree. To the best of his ability, Archie beseeched his father to reconsider. But the lion of the Oval Office stood his ground. He was adamant in his decision and was sticking to it. He refused to encourage what he saw as an annual movement of deforestation.
7. He saw the devastating effects firsthand
There are plenty of reasons why Teddy didn’t want to have a Christmas tree. But the main one was that he was concerned about fanning the flames of environmental destruction. None was more eye-opening than when he visited North Dakota’s Badlands in 1883. An avid hunter, Teddy Roosevelt couldn’t miss the opportunity to hunt large game in North America before they disappeared for good.
Though he recorded the thrill of the hunt, he also recorded his disdain toward the location and the animals that inhabited the area. He saw the consequences of overgrazing and knew that resources were exhaustible. He recorded his findings in a grief-stricken letter.
8. Environmental devastation encouraged his Christmas tree ban
Teddy wrote: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
Teddy felt like it was his duty as the country’s leader to preserve the country’s natural splendor, so he talked about pollution and exhausting our natural resources. He most likely believed that the example he and his family set for the American people could curtail the seasonal demand for evergreen Christmas trees.
9. The children had high hopes
At first, his children protested. It was only a short time prior that the Roosevelts visited a close family relative who had a plush and beautiful Christmas tree. The Roosevelt children were looking forward to having a Christmas tree of their own. They envisioned decorating it with strings of popcorn, cranberries, paper angels, stars, fruit, cookies, and tinsel.
Electricity was a novelty to the American people at the time, and the older children came up with the idea of draping the fir with a bright shawl of Christmas lights. However, their dreams were dashed, despite their father’s good intentions for doing so. But one of the Roosevelt children wasn’t ready to give up.
10. Archie refused to give in to his father’s demands
With their father’s words set in stone, all his children begrudgingly agreed to his wishes. All except for Archie. He refused to believe that there would be no Christmas tree during the most festive holiday of the year. After all, where would the presents go? Along with his younger brother, Quentin, Archie devised a clever plot to change his father’s mind about his Christmas tree ban.
Archie grabbed Quentin’s arm and hauled him to the side. Archie looked over his shoulder to make sure none of his other siblings overheard him. He leaned in and disclosed his plan to his younger brother: smuggling in a Christmas tree!
11. Quentin and Archie took matters into their own hands
Quentin was flabbergasted at his brother’s proposal but was also thrilled at the prospect. With a smile that showed he was up to absolutely no good, Quentin agreed to his older brother’s plot. After all, he wanted a Christmas tree just as much as Archie did. It wasn’t going to take too much effort and they didn’t need to go too far.
All they needed was to chop down a Christmas tree from the White House grounds and sneak it into the White House—easy. Once inside, he and Quentin planned to decorate it with lights and ornaments. Then, on Christmas day, they would surprise the entire family with a Christmas tree reveal! However, there was one small blip in their plan.
12. They needed inside help
If they wanted to make their Christmas tree glow bright, they needed Christmas lights. And in order to do that, they needed inside help. They knew exactly who to call—an electrician. Because in 1903, electricity was still a new amenity in most American homes given that it had only been introduced in the late 1800s.
At the time, people still didn’t fully trust the power of electricity and many chose to continue to use gas lamps and candles to light their homes. However, that tradition was slowly burning out (get it?). Not because times were a-changing, but because the traditional way to light a Christmas tree was hazardous, dangerous, and absolutely lethal.
13. Before Christmas lights, there was fire
Before we had strings of lights to wrap around our favorite pine, most trees were lit with small candles. Yes, candles! Because, seriously, what could go wrong? Before the power of electricity lit up the homes of the American public, gas lamps, a roaring fire, and candles were the only sources of light. That meant homes had a higher risk of bursting into flames.
Thankfully, lighting candles on your Christmas tree was more ceremonious than it was decorative. After lighting up their trees, they’d admire it for a short window of time before blowing them out. So what changed? Who was responsible for the simple idea of stringing some light bulbs on a wire? Hint: It wasn’t Thomas Edison.
14. People didn’t trust electricity
Shortly after Thomas Edison came out with the light bulb in 1879, a young inventor by the name of Edward Johnson came up with the idea of stringing light bulbs on a single wire for the purpose of lighting Christmas trees. His first prototype successfully lit up eight Christmas bulbs. He teamed up with Thomas Edison and made his debut.
He showcased his creation to the world by stringing 80 colored bulbs together on a rotating Christmas tree. The lights were red, white, and blue. It was certainly something to marvel at. However, people did not trust electricity a darn bit. Not only was it a foreign concept at the time, but it wasn’t exactly affordable for most Americans.
15. Christmas lights weren’t available until the 1920s
According to Christmas historian (yes, there’s such a title) Thomas Carlisle, having your tree decorated with lights was not that doable for early-twentieth-century folks. To have a string of lights on your conifer was more than what the average American of the time could afford. They ran around the modern-day equivalent of $300 in 1890.
The dollar value during the time of the Roosevelts would equate to around $8,000 today. It wasn’t until the 1920s that mechanization of light bulb production commercialized Christmas lights. And even if you were lucky enough to be able to afford them, they weren’t that easy to assemble. Oftentimes, an electrician would be called in to help string the lights.
16. Archie hires an electrician
Considering the dangers of electricity, the Roosevelt boys were right in asking the White House electrician to give them a hand with lighting their tree. They had to be discreet and urged that he wouldn’t breathe a word about their little Christmas surprise. Thankfully, the hired hand obliged and was able to string up some lights on their tree.
Archie and Quentin were ecstatic and hid their tree in the one place that was rarely visited in the White House: the seamstress’s closet. They decked their tree with stringed popcorn, fruit, and ribbons. Once the tree was finished, they took a step back to admire their handiwork. The time had come to test the lights.
17. Everything was going to plan
With the flip of a switch, the lights beamed brightly. Archie and Quentin felt ever-so-clever with their little scheme. They shook hands with their electrician and waited for the fateful Christmas day when they would reveal their surprise. Their imaginations began to run wild with the thought of their father’s face when he saw a tree lit up so nicely.
Innocent as they were, they believed that by surprising their father, Christmas cheer would fill him and change his mind about the Christmas ban. After all, they weren’t the first presidential family to invite a Christmas tree into their home.
18. Christmas trees in the White House didn’t gain momentum until 1889
The first president to bring a Christmas tree into the White House was President Benjamin Harrison in 1889. Definitely one of those more obscure presidents, but at least he has that claim to fame. He was the 23rd president of the U.S. Though President Franklin Pierce had brought one in before him, he kept that fact quiet.
However, it was Harrison who revealed the presence of the tree to the American public. It may seem surprising that it took 23 presidents before one was actually willing to admit that he had a tree in the house. That’s because the Christmas tree’s origin is tied to a polytheistic background, or in other words, it has pagan roots.
19. The Christmas tree was considered unchristian
When German immigrants came to America roughly around 1830, so did their customs and traditions. Bringing in a Christmas tree was a celebration of the winter solstice. It was thought that by bringing in a tree and putting boughs of evergreen firs around windows and doorways, evil would be deterred from entering.
They were mostly fending off witchcraft, ghosts, and diseases. However, because the holiday and its traditions were popular, Christmas sort of absorbed many of the practices associated with the pagan holiday. Over time, the tree’s meaning evolved from winter solstice and fighting off scary stuff to the birthday of Jesus Christ.
20. The big reveal does not go according to plan
Teddy had no beef against Christmas traditions. But he did have a problem with chopping down trees. It’s Teddy Roosevelt for crying out loud! The man had an intimate relationship with nature since he was a boy. Growing up, he would wander through the woods, catch insects, and take copious notes about flora and fauna, and attempt to doodle his findings.
He had a deep respect and awe of nature. He firmly believed that trees were more than timber. He felt they needed to be preserved and respected. On Christmas Eve, Teddy Roosevelt was about to get the shock of his life when his two young sons announced a Christmas surprise waiting for his family in the seamstress’s closet.
21. Teddy wasn’t happy
Perplexed, Teddy and his wife Edith followed Archie and Quentin, with the rest of the Roosevelt children in tow, to the seamstress’s closet. With smiles on their faces, the brothers opened the closet and flipped the switch where, decorated in all its splendor, was their Christmas tree! They danced in place waiting for their father’s reaction.
However, instead of a warm reception, Teddy was irate with his boys. Though he commanded his sons for their ingenuity, he couldn’t help but be upset. He had made his wishes clear. How could his own sons disobey him? In fact, Teddy Roosevelt wrote about the event in a letter. Yes…there’s proof.
22. He took his boys to an environmentalist
Of course, Teddy was not happy with what his boys had done, but he wasn’t about to put a damper on their moods. “…There was a surprise for me, also for their good mother, for Archie had a little birthday tree of his own which he had rigged up with the help of one of the carpenters in a big closet; and we all had to look at the tree and each of us got a present off it.”
After a splendid exchange, Teddy thought it was high time the boys got a lesson in the importance of conservation. He gave his buddy Gifford Pinchot a call. Pinchot was a conservationist, an environmentalist, a forester, and a politician who shared the same sympathies with forest preservation as the president.
23. Teddy gets another unexpected surprise
Pinchot agreed to talk to Archie and his younger brother about the importance of forest conservation. He came to the White House, and to Teddy’s surprise, Pinchot delivered some news that he didn’t expect. According to Pinchot, it was okay to chop down certain trees. Pinchot told the Roosevelt family that cutting down larger trees helped promote new forest growth.
Say what? To clarify: By selectively cutting down larger trees, younger, smaller trees have a better at chance at survival because of access to more sunlight on the forest floor. Roosevelt was taken aback by the news. Of course, Archie and his brother must have been beaming. Take that, Dad!
24. They celebrated by throwing a Christmas party
Teddy couldn’t deny or disprove Pinchot’s statement. But the information softened Teddy to the issue as well as his sons’ whims. He decided to lift the ban on having Christmas trees in the White House. Archie and Quentin were over the moon with the news and celebrated Christmas with a feeling of accomplishment mixed with yuletide cheer.
The boys had accomplished their goal of instilling the spirit of Christmas in their father. Teddy was by no means a Scrooge. He loved Christmas and its traditions and showed his love for the holiday by throwing a Christmas carnival at the White House for over 500 children.
25. They had vanilla ice cream in the shape of Santa Claus
There was dinner, dancing, and musical entertainment along with a very sweet surprise. A vanilla ice cream sculpture in the shape of Santa Claus! And before you ask, yes, ice cream was an available commodity in the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, it had been available since 1800.
Thanks to refrigeration and an industrial bloom, by 1850 ice cream could be enjoyed by any American family. So, it would be no surprise that ice cream would be present at the White House. Christmas at the White House couldn’t have been better. Archie and Quentin got their Christmas tree and the president didn’t have to worry about potential arboreal genocide. Everyone wins!
26. The Roosevelts weren’t the only ones to throw a holiday bash
Since the beginning of the 19th century, the country’s leader has done something to celebrate the winter holiday. One notable president is Andrew Jackson. In 1834, President Andrew Jackson hosted a huge bash for his friends and their children. Not only did the kids romp and play out in the snow, but so did the former U.S. president.
They even took the battle indoors, but instead of snow, cotton balls were given instead. Jackson proved to be a courageous adversary and as a gift, received slippers, a corncob pipe, and a small bag of tobacco. The season brought joy to everyone, including one of the nation’s most beloved first ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt.
27. Eleanor Roosevelt wrapped all her family’s presents
If you didn’t know, Eleanor Roosevelt was kind of a big deal, and yes, she was related to Teddy Roosevelt, as was her husband Franklin Roosevelt (5th cousin once removed). An activist who could probably stand toe-to-toe with her husband, she was very involved during the Christmas season.
Every year, Eleanor would hand-wrap all her family’s gifts and stash them in the “Christmas Closet,” which was located on the third floor in the solarium. She hand-wrapped each gift to ensure she didn’t give the same gift to her five children, their spouses, and her 13 grandchildren. Thankfully, she kept a detailed list of which gift went to who.
28. Jackie Kennedy was the first to begin the tradition of selecting Christmas themes
Former First Lady Jackie Kennedy was the first to start the tradition of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas Tree, and selected the “Nutcracker Suite” theme. She placed the tree in the oval Blue Room and decorated the conifer with toys, birds, and angels that followed the “Nutcracker” theme.
Along with toys, Jackie hung cookies, sugarplum fairies, and candy canes. She wasn’t wasteful, either. Jackie reused her ornaments the following Christmas to decorate her children’s tree. It was definitely a Camelot Christmas and it began decades of White House Christmas traditions. It allowed the public to openly admire such a feat.
29. Rules are meant to be bent, if not broken
Christmas traditions are never meant to be broken, however, anything that inhibits that tradition should be removed. Even if that means disobeying the military chief of an entire nation. You have to admit, it was pretty bold. If Archie never smuggled a Christmas tree into the White House, then Teddy Roosevelt wouldn’t have known about the importance of growth in younger trees.
And Teddy is all about sunshine and pine growth. With that said, who knows? He could have banned Christmas trees in American homes in favor of forest preservation. If he established national parks in the U.S., what’s to stop him from creating a Christmas tree ban?
30. And so his heart grew three sizes bigger
Whatever the case, we can safely say that Archie potentially saved Christmas and opened his father’s mind to having Christmas trees during a warm holiday season. His daring mischief opened the doors for other presidents to display evergreen firs in the White House for a century to come, forever immortalizing the permanent symbol of Christmas.
So, go out, go to your local grocery store or Christmas tree lot and get yourself a piece of nature. Put on some Bing Crosby and sneak some amaretto in your coffee or a few extra marshmallows in your cocoa. You can forgive yourself over the holidays. Leave the guilt to the New Year’s resolutions. You’re welcome.