Jackie Kennedy Established Many White House Christmas Traditions

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Christmas at the White House was forever shaped by Jackie KennedyChristmas at the White House was forever shaped by Jackie Kennedy

Pardoning turkeys and helping kids roll Easter eggs – the White House has a storied history of holiday traditions for the whole year. But some of the biggest Christmas traditions in the White House can be traced back to one woman: Jackie Kennedy. Not only did she set a new precedent for all first ladies to follow but she also decked the halls in ways that many other administrations would take inspiration from for decades.

Jacqueline “Jackie” Kennedy Onassis served as first lady from 1961 to 1963. Christmas at the White House had been going on for decades before her husband, President John F. Kennedy, took office; FDR had a tree specifically for public viewing on one floor while his family had their own private tree on another, for example, both lit with real candles. But it was Jackie who introduced both a brand new tradition that endures into the present day and raised the decorating bar to unbeatable levels.

Jackie Kennedy shaped White House Christmas traditions that persist today

As first lady, Jackie was tasked with overseeing the decorating of the White House for the holidays each year. What hadn’t happened before was the use of themes. Jackie was the one who first introduced the idea of giving each Christmas a theme and her first one, established in ‘61, was all about the “Nutcracker Suite” by composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky. This in turn would help streamline the tale becoming a staple of Christmas.

The decor for that first year kept things elegant yet accessible to all viewers so everyone could feel festive looking at them, not unlike watching a performance of The Nutcracker at the ballet.

In keeping with this new trend of hers, next Christmas, Jackie themed the decor around what would be a child’s dream Christmas. Everything was loud, colorful, and sweet. Festive wrapping in bright colors, gingerbread and candy cakes everywhere, and heartfelt handcrafted ornaments made by senior or disabled craftspeople from around the country – all these festooned the White House halls.

Jackie Kennedy was lovingly dedicated to the White House

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy beside the Blue Room Christmas treePresident John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy beside the Blue Room Christmas tree
President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy beside the Blue Room Christmas tree / Robert Knudsen, Office of the Naval Aide to the President, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston via Wikipedia

Jackie always managed to stand out, even in a long list of remarkable first ladies, for her earnest passion for tending to the White House as though it were a family member. Just a month into becoming first lady, she established a White House Fine Arts Committee, which recruited experts in both historic conservation and decorative arts to both help the White House look the best it could and hold true to its rich history along the way.

All the while, Jackie left her own gentle mark on the norms of the building and its goings on, especially around Christmas. It was her decision to move the primary White House Christmas tree into the Blue Room. She also made the most out of whatever was used each year.

“The decorations become part of the White House collection, so they can be reused in other ways,” explained Stewart McLaurin, President of the White House Historical Association. So, Nutcracker decorations from her first theme were easy to repurpose for the next year and this, in turn, set the stage for more colorful Christmases in the years after.

How do you like to decorate for the winter holidays?

Many enduring Christmas traditions at the White House were started by Jackie kennedyMany enduring Christmas traditions at the White House were started by Jackie kennedy
Many enduring Christmas traditions at the White House were started by Jackie Kennedy / Flickr

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