(First published in 2008, this blog posted was updated in 2012 and, after finding the letters to his sisters on the Theodore Roosevelt Center’s website, again in 2016.)
There’s a good deal of misinformation 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.)
Nevertheless, nineteenth-century American households typically 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, and that electric lights were first used on a Christmas tree in 1894.
Regardless of its origins, by Roosevelt’s presidency, 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 note how family tradition held that the Roosevelts never had one. Unphased, each year the press enjoyed speculating about whether the family would have a tree. It was expected that Roosevelt—the father of six children—would have a tree in the White House despite this. What happened in 1902 made the news, however, and soon passed into legend.
This much we know for certain: in 1901, having moved into the White House only a few months before, 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 “had a little birthday tree of his own which he had rigged up” in a big closet with help from “one of the carpenters.” There’s no mention of lights—that’s only implied when saying the tree was “rigged up.” Archie decorated it with gifts for each family member and even the family pets. Afterward, they adjourned to another room where everyone opened their presents. Roosevelt, in a letter written the next day to a friend of the children’s, discussed the tree but did not offer a reaction to it.
Yet, with that tree, it seems that Archie may have begun a family tradition. In a letter to his sister Corrine Robinson penned on December 26, 1906, the president writes:
Archie and Quentin have gradually worked up a variant on what is otherwise a strictly inherited form of our celebration, for they fix up (or at least Archie fixes up) a special Christmas tree in Archie’s room, which is the play-room; and the first thing we had to do was to go in and to admire that. Meanwhile, two of the children had slipt [sic] out, and when we got back to our room there was a small lighted Christmas tree with two huge stockings for Edith and myself, the children’s stockings (which included one for [son-in-law] Nick) reposing, swollen and bulging, on the sofa.
On page two of a letter written to his sister Anna Cowles, whom he called “Bye,” on Christmas Day 1907, he mentions in passing that on that afternoon, following a full day of horseback riding and visiting friends, “there was a Christmas tree of Archie’s.” The comment was offered so casually that it appears that Archie having a tree was not only not a surprise, but that it was expected. This might explain why the children had provided a tree especially for their parents the year before—to surprise them once again as they had in 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. But, as previously stated, we know for certain that Archie did have a tree in 1906 and 1907, and that from President Roosevelt’s letter in 1906 we can infer that Archie had one in the years between 1903 and 1905.
The first lengthy account of Archie’s first tree may have been in a Ladies Home Journal article from December 1903 written 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 up lights. He also recounts the unveiling of the tree, which was the top of an evergreen no more than two feet high and purchased for twenty cents. He quotes Archie as saying at the time of the unveiling, “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.”
O’Brien also addresses the rumors as to why the Roosevelt family didn’t have a tree in previous years. He says some speculated that “the President’s love for the living things of the forest in their own natural setting” was so great “that he prefers not to encourage the wanton slaughter of small trees.” O’Brien summarizes the debate over “the Christmas-tree practice” as being between those who believe “that trees are made for the use and enjoyment of man” and “man might as well pick out what he wants,” versus those who believe that “best-shaped trees” are the ones selected for holiday harvest and “are the very ones that the world can least afford to lose.” Instead, he writes, it’s a matter of personal preference. The family was so large, and with nearly every room in the White House “overloaded with things” during the holiday season, displaying trees “would only add so much more.” Rather, Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt desired to enjoy Christmas as simply as possible.
The environmental arguments circulating in 1902 soon became the reason for the ban, despite such explanations to the contrary. In a December 1909 article in the Oregonian about the history of Christmas in the White House, the motive for banning the Christmas tree, in language that closely echoes O’Brien, 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. This author is vague about who Pinchot lectures on the topic, 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 introduces several errors (for starters, the story occurs in 1905, and he claims that this incident started the White House Christmas tree tradition) and veers so close to historical fiction that I won’t even bother further deconstructing and critiquing his account. But 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 Pinchot proceeds to teach President Roosevelt about selection cutting. The president 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? 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 ever 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?