History of White House Blue Room Christmas Trees

There is some dispute over who brought the first tree into the White House.

Michelle Obama — alongside family dogs Bo and Sunny — received this year's White House Christmas tree in keeping with an off-and-on tradition that has taken hold since the first tree was placed inside in the 1800s.

Arriving in a horse-drawn carriage on Friday, Nov. 27, the tree was destined for the Blue Room, where it will be adorned for the holidays. The president uses the Blue Room, which is located in the center of the State Floor of the White House, as a formal reception area to receive guests.

The decoration of the Blue Room tree is a White House tradition — like the Presidential Turkey Pardon or the Easter Egg Roll.

But there is some dispute over who brought the first tree into the White House. Many say it was Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, in the 1850s. But according to the White House Historical Association, the first documented tree was placed in the Yellow Room by Benjamin Harrison in 1889.

These first trees were not put up every year or by every president.

"Trees were put up for the joy of children," said William Bushong, chief historian for the WHHA. "If the president didn’t have young children or grandchildren in the house, they didn’t put a tree up in many cases."

President Grover Cleveland, who had young children during his time in office, was known for his elaborately decorated topiaries. During his second term, he became the first to use electric lights in decorating his Christmas tree.

Not all presidents were as enthusiastic, including 26th president Theodore Roosevelt.

As an avid conservationist, Roosevelt saw the cutting of trees for Christmas as potentially damaging to forests. According to the National Christmas Tree Association, the farming of Christmas trees as a crop didn't begin until the 1950s, long after Roosevelt's days in the White House.

Roosevelt's son Archie disagreed, and a popular anecdote from that time period is that he snuck a tree into his bedroom for the holiday.

During the Taft presidency that the tree migrated to its permanent home in the Blue Room. President William Howard Taft and his wife Helen were away for the holiday in 1909, and left the decorating to their children. The kids decided to place the tree in the Blue Room, and subsequent first families followed suit.

According to WhiteHouse.gov, there were only two occasions where the tree was not in the Blue Room since 1961. In 1962, Jacqueline Kennedy moved the tree to the Grand Foyer. In 1969, Patricia Nixon did the same. According to the White House Historical Association, Nixon's reasoning was "so people going by on Pennsylvania Avenue can see [it]."

The White House Historical Association credits first lady Lou Henry Hoover with starting the tradition of an annual tree in 1929. Before then, trees were not necessarily erected yearly and it wasn't the first lady's responsibility.

In fact, according to Bushong, "there really wasn’t much of a hoopla really made about Christmas. It was just a private quiet time during the holidays for the family."

Instead, a reception on New Year's Day was the big event of the winter months. After receiving congressmen, diplomats, and members of the military, the White House would open its doors to the public.

"Thousands of people would come in and shake the hand of the president on New Year's Day," said Bushong. The tradition, however, was discontinued in 1932.

Nearly 30 years later, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy updated the White House Christmas by beginning the convention of decorating the tree with a distinct theme. Her first tree in 1961 was themed "Nutcracker Suite" after the ballet.

Other themes have tied into initiatives by the first ladies. Nancy Reagan, for example, had participants in a drug treatment program help decorate her trees. Barbara Bush had a tree decorated with books to promote literacy.

When receiving the Blue Room tree this year, first lady Michelle Obama told tree farmers Jay and Glenn Bustard that, "This is the tree that we use to honor our military." Her previous holiday decorations also featured dedications to members of the military and their families.

The Bustards grew this year's tree on their farm in Landsale, Pennsylvania. They won the NCTA's National Christmas Tree Contest last July.

The contest picks two winners every two years, and since 1966 these winning farms have supplied the Blue Room trees. Next year's tree will come from Whispering Pines Tree Farm in Oconto, Wisconsin.

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