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The Christamas Tree: A National Icon?

By Denebola
Published: December 2008

By Pillar Quezzaire

Growing up, I was always amazed by the lights and ornaments as my family put up the Christmas tree. I was most enamored by receiving my annual ornament that contributed to the menagerie of decorations my mother collected. Christmas in my house was a rather prodigious affair, a very important part of the year, and in general, a very enjoyable time.

That being said, what if my house was the White House?

The White House Christmas tree tradition began not with George Washington, but with Benjamin Harrison, who in 1889 wanted his two small grandchildren to have a Christmas tree. Residing in the White House and a Christian himself, President Harrison saw no reason not hold a family gathering there. He gave presents to his family and his staff; he saw to it that there was a fat turkey for dinner, and by all accounts his Christmas dinner was a fine time for all.

Christmas trees were rarely seen in American households in 1889, for as late at the mid-nineteenth century, they were considered “pagan forms of worship, and only German immigrants tended to keep trees at all. The Christmas tree tradition began with German Protestants sometime during the sixteenth century, and Martin Luther, the famous theologian, is credited as the first person to put lights on a tree, when inspired by a sermon, he decided to decorate his tree with candles in order to reflect the glory of the infant Christ. It is likely that Benjamin Harrison saw lighted Christmas trees frequently as a child in Ohio or a young man in Indianapolis, as both places were home to significant German communities, and that Harrison brought the tradition with him to Washington. The first White House tree was therefore a personal expression of the First Family and not intended as a national symbol.

Every First Family since the Harrisons has displayed a tree. The Kennedys introduced thematic trees in 1961, when Jacqueline Kennedy elected for a “Nutcracker Suite motif. Each tree after that has reflected not only the personal taste of the First Family, but also national beliefs and concerns, such as the Nixon tree of 1969 with decorations made by disabled workers in Florida, or the Ford tree in 1974 that used only recycled ornaments. It is reasonable to conclude that the White House Christmas tree has become a national symbol more by association than intent, as from its inception, it was meant to be a personal expression of the First Family’s beliefs. All people, including the most prominent of public servants, have freedom of expression as granted to them by the First Amendment. President Harrison, in exercising that right, began a national tradition. All Presidents and their families have continued to exercise both the right and the tradition: that the national community pays attention is more a result of our interest in the personal lives of our public servants than adherence to a dictate that violates the separation of church and state. For these reasons, I personally see nothing wrong with a White House Christmas tree.

In my opinion what deserves comment is not whether or not the First Family should erect a Christmas tree, but whether or not the United States will someday elect a President whose family is of a different religious tradition. We as a nation are still deeply conflicted about religious freedom for all – as our continuous discomfort with other religions attests. We still have a Supreme Court battle over the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, as our atheist citizens should not be forced to recite the words “under God.

The fact that we have had White House Christmas trees without interruption since 1889 tells us not that we have an unfortunate tradition of putting up Christmas trees, but an unfortunate legacy of failure to accept differences in religious belief. I would love to revisit the question of Christmas trees, then, when we elect our first President who does not even celebrate Christmas. If his (or her) family is obligated to erect a Christmas tree, then it is time to consider the separation of church and state. If they express their religious traditions, however, then the question will be ultimately invalidated. Christmas trees would be yet a symbol of the many beliefs that could be reflected in the White House.

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