The President Who Banned Christmas Trees and The Boy Who Snuck One In
Here's a great story about Christmas.
President Theodore Roosevelt, an avowed environmentalist, banned Christmas trees from the White House during his presidency. The president was against real Christmas trees because he feared that Christmas trees would lead to deforestation. Mind you, at the time Christmas trees were very controversial with environmentalists. President William McKinley even reportedly received a letter in 1899 saying Christmas trees were "arboreal infanticide" and "un-American."
Roosevelt's action was intended to inspire Americans to just say no to Christmas trees. Clearly his bully pulpit didn't have the effect he wanted, even on his own children.
In 1902, Roosevelt’s two youngest sons, Archie and Quentin, went outside and cut down a smallish tree right there on the White House grounds, snuck back into the White House, and hid it in a closet. The two boys decorated the tree in secret and even enlisted the help of an electrician on staff at the White House to help decorate it with lights. When Christmas morning came, Archie gathered his family outside the closet, turned on the switch, and opened the door to reveal the tree decorated with gifts for the entire family.
Roosevelt acknowledged the event in a letter in which he wrote:
Yesterday Archie got among his presents a small rifle from me and a pair of riding boots from his mother. He won’t be able to use the rifle until next summer, but he has gone off very happy in the riding boots for a ride on the calico pony Algonquin, the one you rode the other day. Yesterday morning at a quarter of seven all the children were up and dressed and began to hammer at the door of their mother’s and my room, in which their six stockings, all bulging out with queer angles and rotundities, were hanging from the fireplace. So their mother and I got up, shut the window, lit the fire (taking down the stockings of course), put on our wrappers and prepared to admit the children. But first there was a surprise for me, also for their good mother, for Archie had a little birthday tree of his own which he had rigged up with the help of one of the carpenters in a big closet; and we all had to look at the tree and each of us got a present off of it. There was also one present each for Jack the dog, Tom Quartz the kitten, and Algonquin the pony, whom Archie would no more think of neglecting that I would neglect his brothers and sisters. Then all the children came into our bed and there they opened their stockings.
According to the website White House Christmas Cards Teddy was "amused by his boys’ ingenuity" but took him to see his friend and environmental advisor, Gifford Pinchot, to explain to horrors of chopping down Christmas trees. But a funny thing happened.
To his surprise, Pinchot went into a lengthy explanation regarding how sometimes, cutting down some larger trees was in the best interests of forests, as it allowed a larger number of smaller young trees to receive the sunlight they need to flourish. While there is no public record of any other Christmas tree being displayed in the White House during Roosevelt’s presidency, a number of environmental acts and reforestation laws had been passed by the end of his term, and the public controversy over the use of live trees for decorative and traditional use had subsided for the time being.
Just a few years later, President Calvin Coolidge hosted the first public Christmas tree lighting at the White House.
And here's a somewhat ironic note. Teddy's cousin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, helped to popularize the concept of growing Christmas trees by growing Christmas trees on his New York estate.