Lloyd Smith gave an interesting presentation of the history of White House Christmas ornaments at last Tuesday’s December dinner meeting of Pawhuska’s PEO Chapter EM.
The event was held in the Methodist Church Family Life Center. After visiting Washington several times, he and wife, Jeanelle, seized on the opportunity of collecting White Horse ornaments. As their collection grew, they eventually designated a special tree for the ornaments.
At various times in history, the White House has been known as “The President’s House,” the “Executive Mansion,” and even the “President’s Palace.” President Theodore Roosevelt officially gave the White House its current name in 1901.
“Christmas has been celebrated in the White House since 1803 when President Thomas Jefferson resided there,” said Smith. “The first record of a Christmas tree in the White House was in 1889 when President Harrison decorated a live tree with tinsel and popcorn. The first White House Christmas ornament ‘Angel in Flight’ was created in 1981 by the White House Historical Society.
“This ornament is a handcrafted miniature replica of the famous angel weathervane made in 1840 in Charleston, Massachusetts, for the Universal Church in Newburyport. It is made from the traditional copper sheeting used to make the original and has been antiqued with a patina that the original weathervane had acquired from years of weathering.” The original of this ornament was displayed in the Blue Room during the 1981 Christmas Season.
The next five ornaments honored America’s first Presidents. The 1982 ‘Dove of Peace’ is a faithful miniature replica of the weathervane President Washington commissioned for his Mount Vernon home. The 1983 ‘White House’ honors John Adams, the first president to live in the White House and reflects the original structure. The 1984 ‘Jefferson Peace Medal’ is based upon third President Thomas Jefferson’s historic 1801 peace medal. “Peace medals were presented to American Indian dignitaries as tokens of friendship,” explained Smith. “Given out extensively by the British in colonial times, the medals of friendship were soon adopted by U.S. leaders. The first were struck in silver and pewter during Presidents Washington and Adams terms.”
Smith demonstrated how one side of the pivoting peace medal featured President Jefferson’s portrait. The other side depicted clasped hands of an Indian and a solider, crowned by a tomahawk and a peace pipe.
Subsequent ornaments celebrated a presidential administration with a few exceptions in the years commemorating landmark anniversaries in White House history. These included the 200th anniversary of the founding of the presidency in 1989, the laying of the White House cornerstone in 1992, and the restoration of the White House by Theodore Roosevelt in 2002.
Smith talked about the uniqueness of each ornament. “The 1985 ornament commemorates the days of James and Dolly Maddison in the President’s house. Both of Madison’s terms were dominated by the War of 1812 (sometimes called the second War for American Independence.) Victory was long in coming. British troops marched on Washington – hours before enemy torches were hurled at the White House, Dolly Madison ordered the famous portrait of George Washington (by Gilbert Stuart) be taken down from the wall of the State Dining Room and spirited away to safety. The next morning the White House was a smoke-blackened ruin.”
President Grover Cleveland has been the only president to be married in the White House. This historical event was the focus of the 2007 ornament. The 2013 White House ornament honors Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States.
“The centerpiece of this ornament is an American Elm tree planted by Wilson on the North Lawn on December 18, 1913, just before Christmas” said Smith. The snowy scene is surrounded by 24 kt. gold-plated elm leaves and is enhanced with olive branches, holly leaves and two peace doves. Words inscribed on the reverse side the ornament were delivered by President Wilson in his War Message to Congress of April 2, 1917: “Peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.”
Founded in 1962, the non-profit White House Historical Association’s mission is to enhance the understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the Executive Mansion. All proceeds from the sale of the Association’s books and products are used to fund the acquisition of historic furnishings and art work which become a permanent part of the White House. Current and historic White House Christmas ornaments are still available by calling 1-800-555-2451. You can also visit their website at www.shop.whitehousehistory.org/ornaments.