When Jimmy Carter decided to run for the Presidential Election of 1976, it was quite a shock to most seeing as he had very little name recognition throughout the United States. But the Democrat Georgia governor campaigned in 37 states, gave 200 speeches, and even gave a private interview to Playboy magazine. Running against President Gerald Ford, Carter won the popular vote by 2.1% and earned 57 more votes in the Electoral College. On January 20, 1977, Jimmy Carter was sworn in as the 39th President of the United States – the first man from the Deep South to be elected President since the election of 1848.
For their first Christmas in the White House in 1977, The Carters asked Harvey Moriarty, a family friend, to draw a picture of the White House for their 1977 Christmas cards. Moriarty’s drawing, done in pen and ink, featured a view of the White House South Portico from the South Lawn. Hallmark lithographed the image on deckle-edged ivory paper. The imprint read, “With best wishes from our family for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The President and Mrs. Carter.”
It was suggested by the Democratic National Committee that the President send Christmas cards to campaign workers and donors to express appreciation and maintain support for the 1980 campaign. So to make certain they would have enough holiday greetings to send out, President Carter and the First Lady ordered a whopping 60,000 White House Christmas cards from Hallmark that year! The President and Mrs. Carter also commissioned Hallmark to reproduce Moriarty’s White House drawing for their Christmas gift prints. Hallmark made up 5,000 prints, which were given out to the White House staff. Each print was inscribed with the title, “The White House-1977,” and contained signatures of both the President and First Lady.
Reflecting President Carter’s policies towards conserving energy and mitigating inflation in the economy (as well as Mrs. Carter’s taste), the White House was dressed with simple decorations for the holiday season. The 20-foot White House Christmas tree, which stood in the Blue Room, was decorated with 2,500 ornaments made by developmentally challenged Americans from all across the country.
On December 15, the President lit his first National Christmas Tree with help from his daughter, Amy. A 34-foot Colorado blue spruce cut from Maryland replaced the deteriorating live spruce used during Ford’s administration. The former tree didn’t go to waste, however; it was used for kindling in the Yule log fire pit. The National Christmas Tree was decorated in 2,000 green energy-saving five-watt lamps accompanied by 500 twinkle lights and white ornaments. As an additional energy-saving precaution, the lights were only illuminated until 10 PM after the New Year.
In the President’s annual Christmas greeting to the American people, Carter spoke of the American family saying, “…I hope that we’ll make every effort during this Christmas season not only to bring our immediate family together but to look at the family of all humankind, so that we not any longer cherish a commitment toward animosity or the retention of enemies but that we forgive one another and indeed, form a worldwide family where every human being on Earth is our brother or our sister…”
On January 26, 1978, the newly cut National Christmas Tree was knocked over by strong winds. The 34-foot Colorado blue spruce had been ripped from its root system and was not expected to survive, so the National Park Service replaced it with a 26-foot Colorado spruce from York, Pennsylvania. This same tree has served as the National Christmas Tree to the present date since its resurrection on the Ellipse in January of 1978.
Several months later, while wandering through the White House furnishings warehouse looking for unused furniture and paintings, Mrs. Carter came across a hand-colored engraving of a photograph of the White House by L.E. Walker. The engraving was originally featured in an 1877 edition of Harper’s Weekly, depicting guests in horse-drawn carriages arriving at the North Portico of the Executive Mansion. The First Lady was so impressed with the engraving that she decided to use it for the official White House Christmas cards of that year.
In 1978, the Carters commissioned American Greetings Corporation to produce their Christmas cards. American Greetings printed 60,000 White House Christmas cards, each adorned with the Presidential Seal and the imprint, “With best wishes from our family for a happy holiday season.” The President and Mrs. Carter also had 5,100 Christmas gift prints made using the same Walker engraving. By September, an additional 40,000 Presidential Christmas cards were requested from American Greetings. The White House Correspondence Office had to enlist volunteers from all over Washington just to help address, stuff, and stamp each of the 100,000 Christmas cards.
The 1877 engraving had inspired the First Lady to decorate the White House for the holiday season in a simple theme from a century of yore. The 20-foot White House Christmas tree was adorned with antique dolls, toys, and furniture on loan from the Strong Museum of Rochester, New York. All of the mantle and window decorations also echoed this style of simplicity.
On December 14, President Carter lit the newly planted Colorado blue spruce. Having recently granted China full diplomatic and trade relations as well as working on creating peace between Israel and Egypt, his Christmas greeting to the American people reflected the notion of humanitarianism. Taken from an excerpt of his speech, he said, “We are joining together as a people again, realizing the strength of a common purpose.”
The following year proved to be a challenging one, both politically and economically. The 1979 energy crisis was taking place, and in response to President Carter granting temporary asylum to the Shah of Iran, Iranian militants held 50 Americans hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran. Presidential aides had suggested canceling Christmas in the White House altogether, but in a U.S. News and World Report article, Carter was quoted as saying, “Canceling Christmas would be giving the Iranians more power over events here then they ought to have.” And so the Christmas festivities went on.
The White House Christmas tree, an 18-foot Douglas fir from West Virginia, was decorated by students from the Corcoran School of Art. The students created 500 ornaments featuring rocking horses, angels, ships, birds, and fruit. One reporter from the New York Times described the tree as having the most avant-garde decorations in the history of the White House.
For the 1979 official White House Christmas cards, Mrs. Carter selected an 1860 watercolor painting done by Lefevre J. Cranstone entitled, The President’s House, Washington. American Greetings printed 105,000 Presidential Christmas cards featuring Cranstone’s painting on the front cover. Each card contained the imprint, “With best wishes from our family for a happy holiday season.” President Carter and the First Lady also had American Greetings produce 7,000 Christmas gift prints using the same artwork from their White House Christmas cards.
On December 13, the President had his daughter light the National Christmas Tree, but to everyone’s surprise, the switch only illuminated the star-shaped tree topper and the blue lights that lit-up the state trees on the Pathway of Peace. In President Carter’s Christmas greeting, he announced that the National Christmas Tree would remain dark until the American hostages were set free. He said, “Amy had lit fifty trees – one for each American hostage. We will turn on the rest of the lights when the hostages come home.” The President then requested a moment of silent prayer.
The following year was an election year, and with President Carter’s dwindling popularity amongst the American people, he ended up dramatically losing the election to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. Since it would be their last Christmas in the White House, the Carters decided the theme for their holiday season would be a romantic, old-fashioned Christmas. The White House Christmas tree was decorated with Victorian-style ornaments, some depicting 19th Century dolls with porcelain heads. The President and Mrs. Carter even had man-made snow produced on the South Lawn for the White House staff and their families to enjoy.
For the Carters’ final White House Christmas cards, the First Lady chose a 19th Century painting by an unknown artist entitled, The President’s House. The painting, which featured Washington’s Tiber Creek in the foreground and the Executive Mansion in the background, was based on a drawing done by William Henry Bartlett in 1839 – the same drawing used for President Nixon’s 1972 White House Christmas cards. American Greetings produced 120,000 White House Christmas cards, each containing the imprint, “With best wishes from our family for a happy holiday season.” The First Family also had American Greetings make up 7,000 Christmas gift prints featuring the same painting as on their Christmas cards.
On December 18, 1980, President Carter lit his final National Christmas Tree. The tree stayed illuminated for only 417 seconds, each second symbolizing the total number of days that the American hostages were being detained in Iran. In his final Christmas greeting to the American people, the President talked about the hostage situation in Iran and the reasons why the tree was to remain unlit. At one point he said, “The hostage families asked me to do this year the same thing we did last year. And this is just to light the Star of Hope and to hold the other lights unlit until the hostages come home. And they also asked me to ask all Americans to continue to pray for the lives and safety of our hostages and for their early return to freedom…”
On January 20 of the following year – the same day as Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Inauguration – the American hostages were released. And holding true to President Carter’s words, the National Christmas Tree was decorated in time for their return to freedom.
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