It depends on the presidency but Christmas for the first family is often an exaggerated version of our own holiday. One of the presidents’ kids described it to me as "bedlam."
Family and friends flown in from all over.
Pure joy, but it can also be stressful.
Keep in mind, the celebration usually moves out of the White House and on to Camp David or the president’s retreat.
Examples in presidencies past and present which may readily come to mind include:
Hyde Park for FDR.
Mar-a-Lago for Donald Trump.
At the White House there are first run movies in the theatre.
Not just a turkey but the national turkey. Not just a Christmas tree but the national Christmas tree and an entire forest of decorated trees on the State floor.
Not just a gingerbread house but the most cleverly, crafted gingerbread house you can imagine. But it all comes with a price. You won’t be able to eat the gingerbread house because of COVID-19 and even before it was off-limits due to the germs of 10,000 people shuffling in and out of parties, receptions, East Room briefings, and State Dining Room breakfasts.
As it is sometimes for the rest of us, it can be a stressful time.
Five American presidents lost their mothers during this holiday period and three lost their fathers. There have been some suicide attempts among in-laws. On November 25, 1885, the Vice President, Thomas Hendricks, died in office.
That was quite the distraction for then-President Grover Cleveland.
Remember, John F. Kennedy was assassinated just days (Nov. 22, 1963) before Thanksgiving.
Both Harry Truman and Gerald Ford died the day after Christmas.
And Calvin Coolidge died just after the New Year holiday celebration, on Jan. 5, 1933.
The work of a president can’t be ignored just because its Christmas. History has no holiday:
—George Washington crossed the Delaware to attack the English-Hessian mercenaries on Christmas Day: Dec. 25, 1776.
—The Bill of Rights was signed Dec 15, 1791.
—France and the United States settled the Louisiana Purchase on Dec 20, 1803.
—The British Embargo act was declared on Dec 22, 1807.
—The War of 1812 ended, Dec 24, 1814.
—On Dec. 20, 1850, President Elect, Abraham Lincoln learned that South Carolina had seceded from the Union. By the way, he was the president-elect and had not even been sworn into office but every word Lincoln spoke during his transition had crucial consequences.
—The day after Xmas in 1917, in the middle of World War One, Woodrow Wilson’s government took over the American Railroad system, throwing holiday travel plans into chaos.
—The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
—FDR and his family were celebrating Xmas at Hyde Park in 1944, while American troops were pinned down by German soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge. One of his son’s girlfriends attempted suicide during her Christmas stay at Hyde Park. The media covered it up.
—Fidel Castro’s revolution picked up steam during the holidays of 1958 and he came to power in Cuba on New Year’s Day.
So the president may be there to carve the turkey but is he really there? Not always.
On Christmas night, 2018, President Donald Trump and First Lady, Melania were on Air Force One flying to be with American troops in Iraq.
Christmas during a presidential transition can be an especially vulnerable time.
Not just for the nation but in a personal sense for the first family.
President Elect Barack Obama lost his grandmother during this time.
She was the person who raised him.
After Andrew Jackson won the election, his wife went to Nashville to buy a dress for the inauguration. There she saw the newspapers that had attacked her husband and the accusations that she was an adulterer and a bigamist. Seeing this news sent her into shock.
She was a very devout, religious woman.
She died Dec. 22, 1828 of a heart attack, and thus never moved into the White House with her husband.
Tragedy struck president-elect Franklin Pierce. He and his wife spent Christmas in Boston, shopping for the inauguration. They were in a train wreck on the ride back to New Hampshire and they were okay but their only son (aged 11) was decapitated in front of their eyes.
Mrs. Pierce did not attend her husband’s inauguration and was in mourning throughout most of his presidency.
Having interviewed six presidents and visiting for hours with many first ladies, as well as 19 first family children; having asked specifically about Christmas, I can report back that the first families love celebration of Christmas above all others.
Many expressed how separated their families had been over the years and how close they became during the embattled White House experience.
There are jets to go out and get them to bring them in. And if history doesn’t slow down during the holidays, the national media does.
Sometimes, that gives the family a little respite.
For the first family, as for most of us, in the words of George Wyle's and Edward Pola's song, "It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year."
Doug Wead is a presidential historian who served as a senior adviser to the Ron Paul presidential campaign. He is a New York Times best-selling author, philanthropist, and adviser to two presidents, including President George H.W. Bush, with whom he co-authored the book "Man of Integrity." Read Doug Wead's Reports — More Here.
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