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Sunday, December 18, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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White House Christmases Weren't Always Fancy Affairs

AP

WASHINGTON - Amid the garlands of evergreen, the red-ribboned wreaths, the spruce and pine spangled with ornament and light, the White House harbors many ghosts of Christmas past.

Thomas Jefferson bringing out his violin to play for a Christmas gathering of children. Andrew Jackson, remembering his poor and painful childhood, shedding a tear over the Christmas trinkets given him by his nephews and nieces. Abraham Lincoln strolling out to Pennsylvania Avenue to buy a toy soldier for a young son.

This year, as many as 30,000 people will troop through the marble halls to see Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton's Christmas decor. They'll see the light-bedecked Christmas tree reaching to the Blue Room ceiling. They'll be surrounded by brigades of toy soldiers, platoons of candy canes, acres of poinsettias.

"From the Roosevelts' informality to the military correctness of the rites of the Truman and Eisenhower years, the story of Christmas at the White House has evolved into its present-day extravaganzas organized and executed by a battalion of staff members and consulting professionals," said writer Alvin Rosenbaum in his 1992 book, "A White House Christmas."

Stories abound from those earlier holidays.

Tad Lincoln's tears save turkey

There was the Civil War year when Tad Lincoln tearfully intervened with his father and won a presidential pardon and years of pampered celebrity status for "Jack," the turkey intended to be the main course for the family Christmas dinner.

In December 1864, Lincoln, his war anxiety lifting, read aloud a telegram from Lt. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman at the end of his army's march through Georgia: "I beg to present to you as a Christmas present the city of Savannah . . ."

According to one story, Franklin Pierce installed the first Christmas tree as a holiday innovation in 1853. Others say that didn't happen until years later.

But by 1889, in the Benjamin Harrison administration, the tree was a well-established tradition as described in Edna Coleman's 1927 book, "White House Gossip From Andrew Johnson To Calvin Coolidge."

"A very large, gorgeous tree was put up in the library, in the trimming of which the president, his family and the staff assisted. It carried toys not only for the children of the family, but also for everyone attached to the White House and their families. Around it, too, were piled the hundreds of gifts and remembrances sent by friends and presidential admirers."

Tree tradition

Theodore Roosevelt bucked that tradition when he entered the White House. Cutting down healthy trees and discarding them after a brief display went against his conservationist grain.

In his 1983 book, "Christmas In The White House," an encyclopedic look at Christmas customs at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., author Albert Menendez recounts that the president's children were so disappointed - and public opinion so hostile - that Roosevelt relented.

"The president's heart was touched, and he no longer prohibited a tree," Menendez wrote.

In 1923, Calvin Coolidge pressed the button to light the first National Christmas tree. Characteristically, "Silent Cal" refused to make a speech. And, ironically, the ceremony itself had a commercial core: It was inspired by lobbyists for the electric-light industry to create a market for outdoor holiday lights.

Not all White House Christmases have followed the holiday script.

Hoover watched office burn

Disaster struck Herbert Hoover's White House on Christmas Eve 1929.

Fire broke out in the West Wing during an icy evening and destroyed the executive offices of the president. Hoover, in evening dress, marched grimly out of a Christmas party and puffed on a cigar as he watched 16 fire engines fight a losing battle.

Inside the White House, his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, kept the party bubbling. Some guests didn't even know there was a fire next door.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was determined to keep Christmas well despite the Depression and World War II.

The Roosevelts insisted on real candles on the Christmas trees in their family quarters despite the protests of insurance underwriters.

Eleanor Roosevelt said: "A tree doesn't look right without real candles and does not give the right atmosphere unless it smells of hot evergreen."

Elliot Roosevelt, writing in "As He Saw It" in 1946, remembered the last Roosevelt family Christmas in the White House:

"The center table in the long living room was pushed back, the Christmas tree was in place and decorated, the piles of presents were ready for the unwrapping - each person's pile heaped on a separate chair. And on Christmas Eve father took his accustomed rocker to one side of the fireplace, and opened the familiar book, while we all found places around him."

The president read Charles Dickens' "Christmas Carol" to the children every White House Christmas, using his resonant voice to portray Scrooge and Tiny Tim and the ghosts of Christmases past, present and yet to come.

FDR was a great gift giver. And in one wartime holiday season he ordered a Christmas tree cut on his estate at Hyde Park, N.Y., wrapped in burlap and delivered - by military aircraft across the Atlantic - to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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