As the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge was the first to truly extend a White House Christmas celebration to the American people. During his first Christmas in the White house in 1923, he initiated the tradition of the National Community Christmas Tree. A 48-foot Balsam Fir from his native state of Vermont was erected on The Ellipse, and an electric button enabled the President to light the tree on demand for the first ever National Community Christmas Tree lighting ceremony.
During the summer of 1924, Coolidge’s youngest son, Calvin, Jr., died of staphylococcus septicemia (better known as blood poisoning), an event that was said to have changed “Silent Cal” forever. That same year, the White House received a record setting 12,000 Christmas cards from the American public. The Coolidges were known to send out Christmas cards, but only to family and close friends.
Still mourning the loss of his son, Coolidge was reluctant to partake in another National Community Christmas Tree lighting ceremony. He and the AFA (American Forestry Association) were also against cutting down a tree just for the purposes of decorating. The AFA persuaded Coolidge to accept a donation of a living 35-foot Norway spruce, which was planted in Sherman Plaza, near the east entrance of the White House. With the flick of a switch on Christmas Eve of 1924, the National Community Christmas Tree lighting ceremony officially became an annual celebration, but the live tree would only last for five years due to wear and tear from decorating.
In 1925, it was hoped that President Coolidge would speak on the radio networks, wishing the American children a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Unfortunately for the children of America, this did not happen. However, after the National Community Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, 2,000 people were welcomed to the White House ground for caroling led by the choir from the President’s church. And on New Year’s Day, 3,000 to 4,000 people were invited to line up and shake the hands of the President and First Lady.
“Silent Cal” received his nickname from his stoic and serious demeanor. But in 1926, after receiving so many heartfelt gifts and Christmas cards from the American people, Coolidge was so emotionally affected that he gave a gift of a gold coin to all of the White House officials and staff members.
1927 was a momentous year for Christmas in the White House. After receiving countless requests to address the American people with a Christmas message, Coolidge finally agreed. On Christmas morning, a short hand-written message from the President appeared in every major newspaper, making this the first Christmas greeting to be given to the American public from a president.
In 1928, Coolidge decided not to run for re-election, making this his last Christmas in the White House. At the National Community Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, Coolidge spoke to the large crowd of spectators and to the American people listening on their radios, “In token of the good-will and happiness of the holiday season and as an expression of the best wishes of the United States toward a Community Christmas Tree, in behalf of the city of Washington, I now turn on the current which will illuminate this tree.”