Theodore Roosevelt didn't want to deplete forests for the holiday. His children had other ideas.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
By Thomas V. DiBacco
Dec. 9, 2015
Theodore Roosevelt's commitment to conservation is well known. Less well known was the 26th president's ill-fated attempt to ban Christmas trees at the White House. Why? So many trees were cut down for the holidays, he believed, that it was contributing to deforestation—and he wanted to set an example for the country.
Franklin Pierce decorated the first Christmas tree on the White House lawn in 1853; Benjamin Harrison brought a tree inside the White House in 1889, lighted by candles, to the marvel of his grandchildren. Six years later Grover Cleveland, who had two young daughters, decorated the tree with electric lights.
TR's Grinch-like practice began in 1902. As the Sun newspaper in New York City reported, the president and family would celebrate the holiday by exchanging gifts, "but there will be no Christmas tree in the White House."
Yet the two youngest of the Roosevelts' six children, Archibald, age 8, and Quentin, age 5, were not to be denied. With the covert help of White House staff, they cut a small fir tree from the grounds, hid it away and wired it with lights.
Roosevelt recounted what happened on Christmas morning in a letter to a friend the next day. There "was a surprise for me, also for their good mother, for Archie had a little Christmas 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 than I would neglect his brothers and sisters. Then all the children came into our bed and there they opened their stockings."
The president was in for another surprise. He asked noted conservationist Gifford Pinchot, who would later serve as his first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, to lecture the children on the necessity of banning Christmas trees. But Pinchot admitted it was good to cut down trees periodically to get more sunlight for other trees to grow.
Well, you know how this story had to end. While there was still no White House Christmas tree in 1905, the Sun noted that the president's younger children would be permitted, as in the previous few years, to visit the tree-bedecked home of their cousin, Sheffield Cowles, on N Street on Christmas afternoon.
And by 1906, the ban was gone. "The children made the White House ring with merriment last night," the Washington Herald recounted on Christmas Day. "There is to be a large tree."
Mr. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University in Washington, D.C.