Recently, Eben came across a story about how Theodore Roosevelt refused to allow a Christmas tree in the White House because of “environmental concerns.” A bit of research kept turning up variations on the story about the ban and how his son Archie smuggled one in against his father’s wishes, which provoked an angry reaction. Some versions of the story include dialogue between father and son, and some have the children involving Gifford Pinchot, the federal chief of forestry, to defend their actions. The incident is even the subject of a children’s book by Gary Hines which, though historical fiction, is no farther from (or closer to) the truth than the historical record as it now exists.
While the Roosevelts’ lack of a tree was not a complete break in tradition — a holiday tree in the White House did not become established annual practice until the 1920s — it was still a notable exclusion. Prior to Roosevelt, Christmas trees were a fairly rare occurrence in the White House. Legend has it that the fifteenth president, James Buchanan, had the first tree, but even that is disputed, with some sources saying Franklin Pierce had the first one in 1853. (Keep in mind that as late as the 1840s, most Americans viewed Christmas trees as pagan symbols; the day itself was treated with great solemnity.)
Though German immigrants introduced the tradition to America in the 1700s, the Christmas tree only caught on here in the mid-nineteenth century after Queen Victoria popularized the practice in England in the 1840s. Nevertheless, nineteenth-century American households typically still didn’t put one up unless there were young children in the house; they placed the presents under or even on the tree for the tykes. Presidents Grant and Cleveland both had Christmas trees in the White House only because they had young children, while presidents without young children had no tree. Interestingly, on their website, the White House Historical Association claims Benjamin Harrison had the first recorded Christmas tree in 1889 but makes no mention of any before then.
Regardless of its origins, by Roosevelt’s time, a growing opposition to Christmas trees was reaching its peak. Many among the general public opposed cutting trees for the holiday because of the injurious impact on forests, the destructive methods used to harvest them, or the overall perceived wastefulness of the practice. The U.S. Forest Service Newsclipping Files in the FHS Archives contain numerous newspaper editorials from around the turn of the century strongly challenging the practice. The Hartford Courant in 1902 commented that “the green has become a nuisance, there is so much of it. Everything from a church to a saloon has to be decorated. The result is that the woods are being stripped and an altogether endless sacrifice is going on, not in obedience to any real need but just to meet the calls of an absurd fad.” In what sounds like the debates over natural vs. artificial trees today, others called for artificial substitutes such as wire Christmas trees:
President Roosevelt himself was on record as opposing destructive lumbering practices, though he doesn’t appear to have singled out the practice of harvesting Christmas trees. (It is worth noting that Chief Forester Pinchot actually saw nothing wrong with the practice, and by 1907 was even urging the creation of businesses specifically for growing them.) A few contemporary newspaper articles claim that family tradition held that the Roosevelts never had one. Undeterred, each year the press enjoyed speculating about whether the family would have a tree. It was expected that Roosevelt — the father of five children — would have a tree in the White House. What happened in 1902 made the news, however, and soon passed into legend.
This much we know for certain: in 1901, the Roosevelt children enjoyed a tree at their cousin’s house but not in their own home. In 1902, Roosevelt’s eight-year-old son Archie stashed some sort of tree in a closet, and one of the electricians rigged up tree lights for it. Archie decorated it with gifts for each family member and even the family pets. On Christmas day he surprised his parents and siblings with the tree and presents. Roosevelt, in a letter written the next day, discussed the tree but did not offer a reaction to it.
It is not clear why Roosevelt didn’t want a tree in the White House. Many print and internet sources claim it was because of concern over the negative impacts of Christmas tree cutting on America’s forests. But there seems to be no historical record of Roosevelt publicly addressing this issue. Other contemporary reports claim that Mrs. Roosevelt preferred to celebrate as simply as possible, implying that trees would only add to the overcrowded house. I’ve gone through many TR and Alice Longworth (TR’s eldest child) biographies and memoirs; the Washington Post and New York Times from that era; and numerous histories of the White House. I have yet to find a mention of Archie Roosevelt and the secret Christmas tree beyond that one letter written the day after Christmas 1902. Incidentally, newspaper articles from 1903 to 1908 mention that there will be no tree that year but speculate about what will happen and if Archie will pull a fast one. Some articles from 1903, 1904, and 1905 claim Archie had a secret tree each of those years, with the writers essentially repeating the events of 1902 as if it just happened for the first time. Oddly, the articles are dated December 24th or even the 25th.
The myth surrounding Archie’s tree seems to have started with a description of the event in a Ladies Home Journal article from December 1903 by Robert Lincoln O’Brien, former executive clerk at the White House. In his account of the events of Christmas 1902, O’Brien claims that Quentin’s nurse suggested enlisting the household electrician to rig the lights. He also recounts the unveiling of the tree, quoting Archie as saying, “Just look here for a minute. I want you to glance into this old closet,” before pressing a button to turn on the lights and opening the closet door. O’Brien wrote, “All the family were there, as was Quentin’s nurse, but none appeared more astonished than Mr. Roosevelt himself at the sight of this diminutive Christmas tree.”
The myth expanded in a December 1909 article in the Oregonian about the history of Christmas in the White House, in which the motive for banning the Christmas tree is linked to “the wanton destruction of small evergreen trees at Christmas time.” But then, the reader is told, “Mr. [Gifford] Pinchot, the Government’s chief forester, sided with Santa Claus and showed how Christmas tree cutting did the forests good in many places. So the second [w]inter the Roosevelts spent in the White House Old Kris conspired with roguish Archie to give the family a real Christmas tree, whether the nature-loving President liked it or not.” Here, for the first time, Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot is drawn into the drama — and sides with the children by discussing the benefits of selection cutting. O’Brien is vague about who he lectures, but the message gets through to the President and he relents in the face of science.
Fast-forward 80 years, and the story is twisted even further and becomes almost fantasy. In a December 1988 article in The Northern Logger and Timber Processor, Dick O’Donnell mixes fact with fiction and errors (for starters, the story occurs in 1905, and he claims that this incident started the White House Christmas tree tradition) so egregiously that I won’t even bother further deconstructing and critiquing his account. Problems aside, O’Donnell does spin a great yarn. He tells us with a straight face that, in 1905, Archie has the idea for the tree but Quentin is worried by their father’s ban. Archie’s solution is to pay Forester Pinchot a visit and enlist their father’s friend and adviser for help. He not only sides with them, but then he proceeds to teach President Roosevelt about selection cutting, who then calls a press conference to announce a change in forest management policy on federal lands. But perhaps the conversations O’Donnell conjures up between Archie and Quentin, and between Roosevelt and Pinchot, gave Gary Hines the basis for his wonderful children’s book. So it can’t be all bad.
We are trying to answer the following questions: What were the real reasons behind why Roosevelt did not allow a tree in the White House? What are the facts concerning Archie’s tree (did he do it once or twice?) and the President’s reaction to it? And how and when did the crux of the current legend — that Roosevelt banned trees from the White house due to environmental concerns — come about? Did Roosevelt really oppose the Christmas tree due to concern for America’s forests, or is this all just a case of when the legend becomes fact, print the legend?
(This blog posted was updated in 2012.)