Holidays At The White House
( Originally Published 1908 )
ALL the holidays observed by the American people have been celebrated by the Presidents and their families at the White House, with the exception, in latter days, of the Fourth of July and Labor Day, these holidays occurring while the Chief Executive is away at his summer home.
New Year's has been the day involving the largest public reception at the White House, ever since John Adams formally opened the mansion to the people on that day one hundred and eight years ago. In the early days, the anniversaries of the Battle of New Orleans were celebrated at the White House, President Monroe receiving the hero of that battle, Gen. Andrew Jackson, on one occasion when the floor of one of the rooms in the White House were marked, in chalk, with words extending a welcome to the guest of honor.
Fourth of July and Washington's Birthday have nearly always been celebrated at the White House. Thanksgiving, however, was not observed at the mansion as a holiday until 1845, President Polk being the first to hold festival on that day.
Christmas at the Executive Mansion
As in all the other homes of the nation, the home of the Chief Executive, at Christmas time, has from the beginning become the scene of merriment at Christmas time. In Jefferson's time, and Jackson's, and Benjamin Harrison's, when grandchildren lived in the White House, Christmas was the occasion of more than usual festivity. Delightful, too, were the Christmas times of the second Cleveland administration, when the Cleveland babies were given a huge Christmas tree. In Mr. Roosevelt's two administrations Christmas has been observed with more than the usual functions, including one or two children's parties, at which the hosts and hostesses were the President's four sons and two daughters.
A description of an old-time Christmas eve at the White House, that of 1847, when President Polk was the White House occupant, is given by a reporter of that period thus :
"It was reception night and the latch-string in the shape of a handsome negro was `outside the. door'. On entering I found a comfortable room full, with President Polk standing before the fire, bowing and shaking hands.
"The better half of the President was seated on the sofa, engaged with some half a dozen ladies in lively conversation ; and though ill and clumsy at millinery, yet I will try to describe what she `had on'. A maroon colored 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. Mrs. Polk is a handsome, shrewd and sensible woman better looking and better dressed than any of her numerous `female acquaintances' on the present occasion.
"Among the `guests of distinction' were the Hon. Cave Johnson, P. M. G., who bears a strong resemblance about the head to Mr. Greeley, of the Tribune; Mr. Vinton, of Ohio; Commodore de Kay, Mr. Rockwell, of Connecticut, a Wall Street financier, who can draw a larger draft on London than any other man in the country; two or three pairs of épaulettes: a couple of pretty deaf and dumb girls, who talked with their fingers, and a score of others who only talked with their eyes, while a whole regiment of the `raw material' of the Democracy, in frock coats, stood as straight as grenadiers around the outer circle of the room."
New Year's Day and the Great Reception
Of all the receptions held at the White House during each year, the greatest now is and always has been, that held on New Year's Day. It means, we are told, a dress parade of the entire official contingent. A day or two before the event, the public rooms of the mansion are closed and put into the hands of the White House decorators. Not only the White House conservatory, but those of the Agricultural department and the Botanical gardens as well, are brought into requisition to supply the needed flowers. In another book by the present author, The Rulers of the World at Home, are found these statements regarding the New Year's reception in McKinley's time; the arrangements being practically the same today tinder Roosevelt :
Announcements are made in the newspapers proclaiming the reception and the exact moment at which the different officials of the government service will be received. From the State Department engraved cards of invitation are sent to each of the foreign representatives at the Capital to be present at the New Year's reception. The drawing rooms are profusely decorated for the occasion with cut flowers and plants. The great cut-glass chandeliers, the doorways and mirrors are all festooned with smilax; mantels and mirror rests are banked with a mosaic of camelias, carnations and tuberoses, and the window recesses and corners of the rooms are filled with tall palms and blooming azaleas. Our beautiful national flag is utilized or suggested in beautifying the White Nouse whenever it can be brought into play.
The callers enter the grounds by the west gate, and the house by the north entrance, passing through a door in the glass screen into the red corridor; thence they move into the Red Room, and at the Blue Room they are presented to the President and to the lady of the White House. They greet the women in line when not personally known to them, pass into the Green Room, and then into the East Room. A temporary platform is constructed with steps leading to the ground from one of the windows in the little hallway. Over this platform callers pass out of the house and leave the grounds by the east gate.
The reception is held in the Blue Room. A barricade of sofas is made across the room from the Red Room door to the Green Room door, forming a line against which the receiving party stands. The space back of the sofas is reserved for guests specially invited by the President to enter there, and the entrance is guarded by the head of the house staff of ushers. The Marine Band, in full uniform, is stationed in the corridor, and strikes up `Hail to the Chief' as the President and the receiving party leave the dressing rooms. Each Cabinet Minister escorts his wife, and the company enters the Blue Room from the red corridor in the order of the ranking of the Ministers. The President stands at the door of the Red Room, and the ladies stand against the sofa backs.
A White House Program of New Year's Day
As already stated, the exact time at which various officials will be received at the White House on New Year's Day is announced in advance. The regulations in this respect issued by President Roosevelt for a New Year's reception in a recent year, read :
The President will receive at 11 A.M.—The Vice-President, the Members of the Cabinet, the Diplomatic Corps. 11:20 A.M.-The Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, the Judges of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, the Judges of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, the Judges of the U. S. Court of Claims, former Members of the Cabinet, Ambassadors and Ministers of the United States.
11:30 A.M.—Senators, Representatives and Delegates in Congress; the Commissioners and Judicial Officers of the District of Columbia.
11:45 A.M.—Officers of the Army, officers of the Navy, officers of the Marine Corps, Commanding-General,and general staff of the Militia of the District of Columbia.
12:15 P.M.—The Regents and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the Civil Service Commission, the interstate Commerce Commission, the Isthmian Canal Commission, Assistant Secretaries of Departments, the Solicitor-General, Assistant Attorneys-General, Assistant Postmasters- General; the Treasurer of the United States, the Librarian of Congress, the Public Printer, the heads of bureaus in the several departments; the President of the Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb.
12:30 P.M.—The Society of the Cincinnati, the Associated Veterans of the War of 1846-47, the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, the Grand Army of the Republic, the Medal of Honor Legion, the Union Veteran Legion, the Union Veteran's Union, the Society of the Army of Santiago, the Spanish War Veterans, the Army and Navy Union, the Minute Men, the Sons of the American Revolution, the members of the Oldest Inhabitants' Association of the District of Columbia.
1 P.M.—Reception of citizens.
Gentlemen to be received, whether in carriages or on foot, will enter the White House by the north portico, and will leave by the eastern entrance (opposite the Treasury).
Carriages will approach the White House by the north-western gate and be parked in East Executive Avenue, where they will remain until called to the east entrance, from which all guests will depart.
First New Year's Reception in the President's House
The first New Year's reception was held in the White House on January 1, 1801, and the customary etiquette was observed in spite of the shivering conditions. It was the fashion in the early days of the Republic for the company to be seated and the President and his lady to pass around the circle with words of courtesy and welcome.
President and Mrs. John Adams decided to hold their New Year's reception notwithstanding that the White House was not yet fully furnished, and it was given in the oval-shaped library on the second floor, a handsome room commanding a fine view of the Potomac, and the outlying Virginian and Maryland hills.
"That first reception," we are informed, "was a very formal affair. The President and his wife did the honors alone that New Year's Day, and it does not seem to have occurred to them to call on the Cabinet families to assist them. The President's wife sat in state in her brocades and velvets, while the President stood beside her in knee-breeches, gaily colored waistcoat,, high stock collar, and his powdered hair tied in a neat queue. After each guest had paid his respects to them, he passed on and was served with refreshments by a colored waiter.".
Some one writing of a New Year's reception at the White House in the early years of the last century speaks of the "flashing jewels, silken dresses and nodding plumes" and adds quaintly :
"My attention was attracted to what seemed like a rolling ball of burnished gold carried swiftly through the air upon two gilt wings, toward the President's house. It stopped before the door, and from it alighted, weighted with gold lace, the French Minister and his suite. We now perceived that what we had supposed to be wings were gorgeous footmen, with brass chapeaux and gilt braided skirts, and armed with glittering swords."
N. P. Willis Describes President TyIer's New Year's Reception
One of the distinguished guests of President Tyler at the New Year's reception of 1844, was the poet, N. P. Willis, who afterward wrote the following account of his experience on that occasion :
"New Year's Day has passed, and never was a brighterand gayer anniversary seen in the metropolis. The sun shone out in unusual splendor, and the day was mild and refreshing as a morn in the early spring. The whole population was in the streets, and Pennsylvania Avenue, with its throng of gay and animated faces, would have reminded you of a time of carnival.
The boarding-house messes turned out their complement of members of Congress ; the fancy shops were filled with lively, merry hearts ; and the masses, in their holiday suits, were on their way to the President's house, to see and be seen in the great levee.
"We went to the President's, early, before twelve o'clock; and, even at this hour, the long line of carriages in front, dotted here and there with the liveries and cockades of the cortèges of the Foreign Ministers, foretold that a goodly company had already arrived. We made our entrance through the crowd at the front door, unresisted by guards or bayonets, and passed on to the receiving rooms, without any ceremony, and shook the hand of the President of the United States.
"The President was surrounded by his Cabinet, and, giving to each guest, as he approached, a very bland salutation, he handed them over to the ladies of his family on his left. The receiving room is the centre Oval Room, and passing from thence into another adjoining apartment, following in the train of the crowd, you find yourself in the far famed East Room, where the sovereigns of the land make their circuit. It was crowded on this occasion, and every class of society was fully represented. The room presented a bright and gratifying scene ; all seemed to feel at home, and each face bore an abandon of care.
"The number of ladies was unusually large, and some were very beautiful, in full morning-dress, with hats and feathers and glittering gowns, standing in one position. While the company made the evolution of the rdom, you saw all that passed. The officers of the army and navy in full dress made a fine appearance. Among the latter were seen Major-Generals Scott, Gaines, Gibson, Towson, Jessup all heroes of the (Mexican) war. Many Senators and members of the House were present, and this being the first levee of many of the new members, they were particularly attracted by the brilliant court costumes of some of the Foreign Ministers. The dress of the Mexican Minister, General Almonte, seemed to carry the day, in the rich profusion of gold embroidery. The dress of the French Minister, of blue and gold, was rich and unpretending. The Spanish Minister and suite, in light blue and silver, looked well. The Brazilian, in green and gold, the white Austrian and Swedish uniforms, were very handsome."
Cleveland's First and Last New Year's Receptions
The first New Year's reception held by President Cleveland in the White House, was chronicled in the press, at the time, with full details. From these reports we learn that :
"The apartments were decorated with groups of palms in all the angles and recesses of the walls, and the mantels were adorned with potted plants in gilt baskets. In the Blue Room, where the company stood to receive, blooming azaleas made masses and points of color against the background of palms lining one end of the Oval Room, and cut flowers were added to the mantels. The company descended from the private part of the mansion, the President escorting Mrs. Bayard, and Secretary Bayard giving his arm to Miss Cleveland (the President's sister). Colonel John Wilson, the Marshal of the District, stood at the left of the President.
"The latter wore a plain black morning suit, double-breasted Prince Albert coat, with black necktie. He did not wear gloves, nor yet the buttonhole bouquet with which President Arthur always carefully adorned his coat. Miss Cleveland wore a rich, tasteful toilette.
"The reception for citizens began at one o'clock, and the line of those waiting extended from the doorway down to the gates and far beyond them. Marshal Wilson, who presented those untitled ones to the President, and Lieutenant Duval, who performed the service for Miss Cleveland, had a great tax upon them while the continuous stream of people poured in and through the receiving room. Policemen in uniform kept order outside of the mansion, but the guardians of the peace brought in to assist the ushers and attendants in the State apartments were all dressed in the frock coats of citizens.
And in the newspaper accounts of President Cleveland's last New Year's reception, it is stated :
"The American flag floated over the White House on January 1, 1889. The day was bright and beautiful and the `Cleveland weather' allowed crowds to assemble at the gates long before they were opened. At noon the President, escorting Miss Bayard, and Mrs. Cleveland on the arm of Secretary Bayard; passed down the stairway and into the Blue Room, which was decorated with white azaleas, scarlet poinsettas and palms. Baron Fava led the Diplomats, among whom was the new German Minister, Count Von Arco Valley. Among the noticeable guests was the venerable George Bancroft in his eighty-ninth year who revived the old fashion of evening dress. Mrs. Cleveland, Mrs. Fairchild and Mrs. Dickinson remained with the President until the public reception was over. Among the throng Dr. Mary Walker, in her masculine attire, passed on and was introduced by Colonel Wilson.
"A beautiful new carpet, strictly in harmony with the furniture and the massive grouping of tall palms, with bright foliage plants, set off the big East Room handsomely. In the Red, Blue and Green parlors orchids added their rich, languid beauty and down the private corridor pots of primroses gave out the suggestive sweetness of spring. Over all sparkled the lights of the crystal chandeliers and with all was the inspiring music of the Marine Band, for the first time of fifty pieces, fairly filling the outer corridor with the brilliant scarlet uniforms. Seldom or never have the arrangements been so complete for the comfort and pleasure of visitors.
"The public reception began at 12:30, and for the first half-hour Colonel Wilson made the introduction by name.
Then it was given up as hopeless, and the handshaking went on as rapidly as the President's strong arm could make it go.
Mrs. Cleveland never flagging either; but with her glove off, shaking hands vigorously, smiling on all, black, white, old, young, babies in arms and babies on foot, who gave backring smiles until pleased faces were like a beam of light clear through to the East Room. Little expressions of delight followed New Year's greetings, natural, ludicrous and not lacking in a touch of the pathetic."
Fourth of July at the White House
Up to the time the Presidents began the practice of leaving Washington during the summer months, the day of greatest display and patriotism at the White House was the Fourth of July. Nearly all the earlier Presidents celebrated the day within the mansion, each holding a public reception.
Of the first of such Fourth of July receptions in the term of President Madison, a chronicler of the day says:
"About noon company began to wait upon the President, and in the course of a short time his spacious rooms were filled with a numerous assemblage of ladies and gentlemen, including the officers of the government, strangers of distinction and citizens, among whom refreshments were liberally distributed. The President received the congratulations of his fellow citizens on the return of the anniversary of their freedom, with the satisfaction which naturally flowed from a recollection of the interesting scenes through which his country had passed, from realizing in their full extent the blessings of self-government and from a consciousness of his own agency in establishing and securing the national liberties. Every one present exhibited feelings of lively interest at the return of this great day amid circumstances so honorable to the character, and so conspicuous to the happiness of his country ; feelings which were heightened by the happy effect of a powerful band of music, playing patriotic airs at short intervals. At one o'clock the militia passed in review, and saluted the President. About two o'clock the company separated and distributed themselves in parties arranged for the further celebration of the day."
And concerning the observance of Independence Day in the term of John Quincy Adams, the diary kept by that President contains the following entry:
"The procession to the Capitol was formed only of one company of cavalry and a school of young girls, one of whom represented the Union. Four or five of the new States were represented by boys in the costume of Indians and painted. Governor Barbour and my son John went with me to the Capitol, where a prayer was made by Mr. Hawley; the Declaration of Independence was read by Mr. Daniel Brent, and an oration was pronounced by Mr. Asbury Dickins. We returned home, and at the gate found a company of cavalry from Prince George's County, Maryland, commanded by the late Governor of the State, Sprigg. For about two hours we received the crowd of visitors, of both sexes and of all conditions. About three o'clock the company were all gone."
Washington's Birthday a Gala Occasion
The twenty-second of February has invariably been an occasion observed at the White House in some form or other by which the head of the nation paid honor to the Birthday of the "Father of His Country." One of the most interesting accounts of the observance of this holiday at the White House is given by N. P. Willis, who tells of a reception at which he (Mr. Willis) was present as the guest of President Jackson. In the chapter in the present history on Letters and Gifts for the Presidents, the facts are set forth relating to the mammoth cheese presented to President Jackson. To this cheese N. P. Willis refers in the following little story of the reception on Washington's Birthday, 1837:
"I joined the crowd on the twenty-second of February to pay my respects to the President and see the cheese. Whatever veneration existed in the minds of the people toward the former, their curiosity in reference to the latter predominated, unquestionably. The circular pavé, extending from the gate to the White House, was thronged with citizens of all classes. The beautiful portico was thronged with boys and coach-drivers. On the side of the hall hung a rough likeness of the General emblazoned with eagle and stars, forming a background to the huge tub in which the cheese had been packed; and in the centre of the vestibule stood the `fragrant gift', surrounded with a dense crowd, who had, in two hours, eaten, purveyed away fourteen hundred pounds.
"We desisted from the struggle to obtain a sight of the table and mingled with the crowd in the East Room. Here were diplomats in their gold coats and officers in uniform, ladies of secretaries and other ladies, soldiers on voluntary duty and Indians in war-dress and paint. Bonnets, feathers, uniforms and all, it was rather a gay assemblage. Great coats there were and not a few of them, for the day was raw, and unless they were hung on the palings outside, they must remain on the owner's shoulders, but with the single exception (a fellow with his coat torn down his back, possibly in getting at the cheese) I saw no man in a dress that was not respectable and clean of its kind. Those who were much pressed by the crowd put their hats on.
"The President (Jackson) was downstairs in the Oval reception room, and though his health would not permit him to stand, he sat in his chair for two or three hours, and received his friends with his usual bland and dignified courtesy. By his side stood the lady of the mansion (Mrs. Andrew Jackson, Jr.), dressed in full court costume, and doing the honors of her place with a grace and amenity which every one felt, and which threw a bloom over the hour. General Jackson retired, after a while to his chamber and the President-elect (Martin Van Buren) remained to receive the still thronging multitude, and by four o'clock the guests were gone and the banquet hall was deserted. Not to leave a wrong impression of the cheese, I dined afterwards at a table to which the President had sent a piece of it, and found it of excellent quality."
Washington's Birthday Observed by Cleveland
At a reception on Washington's Birthday in President Cleveland's term, the festivities reached their climax in the evening, at which time we are told in contemporaneous accounts, that .
"The line of callers was led in without discrimination. When the first couple entered the White House door, the line extended down the west walk to the gate, and then eastward to the east gate. The President and Mrs. Cleveland met each of the long line with the usual cordial grasp of the. hand. The throng was plain, a few of the men being in evening dress and many of them wearing their overcoats and carrying their hats in hand. Mrs. Cleveland wore a princess dress of ruby plush with the neck cut square in front and pointed at the back, a diamond necklace with three pendants about her neck and frills of old point lace about the edge of her corsage. One white glove was turned back, leaving her right hand bare to grasp the hands of the passing multitude."
The Easter Monday Egg Rolling
One form of Easter observance, a survival of the most ancient rites in almost indistinguishable variation, is still preserved in the "egg rolling" at the White House. This custom of egg rolling by the children on Easter Monday is one peculiar to Washington. It is really a great picnic for the little ones at the National Capital, for hundreds, and even thousands, of children gather in the great lawn at the back of the Executive Mansion, bringing their little baskets of lunch and many colored eggs for a full day's enjoyment in the open air.
The custom started many years ago by the children of East Washington gathering in the Capitol grounds and rolling their Easter eggs down the grassy slopes, seeing who could roll the eggs to the bottom without breaking them. Year by year the crowds became so great, causing much damage to the grass, that the Capitol police forbade their coming; and it was President Hayes whd first invited the little ones to come to the White Lot. From that time the annual egg rolling has taken place at the White Lot.
Formerly it was merely a day of innocent enjoyment for the little ones, but for the last half dozen years it has become a great National event at the Capital. President Harrison ordered the Marine Band to play in the afternoon while the children romped, and Sousa, who was then the leader of that band, took great delight in playing his marches for the delectation of the crowd.
The President usually held receptions during the afternoons in the East Room for the children, but the crowds became so great that these had to be abandoned. Instead, President and Mrs. Roosevelt watch the sport from the balcony of the White House overlooking the White Lot, and they always have a large number of invited guests to enjoy the afternoon with them.