Lyndon B. Johnson
On November 22, 1963, only two hours after John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in on Air Force One as the 36th President of the United States. There were no bibles on board, so he swore the oath on a Roman Catholic missal – a formidable reminder of the late President Kennedy.
Several days later, the Chief of Protocol at the State Department recommended that the newly appointed President Johnson and First Lady send Presidential Christmas cards to foreign ministers and heads of government with whom Kennedy had close ties. After only recently fulfilling the order for Kennedy’s official White House Christmas cards (which were never mailed out), Hallmark created a very simple design to reflect the sensitive time at which the new President’s Christmas cards were being received.
The design featured an embossed Presidential Seal on a simple white stock with a red silk screen ban at the bottom. The front was sans year and sentiment. Two different messages were created for the imprint, following in the respect-driven footsteps of the late President Kennedy. One read “The President and Mrs. Johnson wish you a Blessed Christmas and Happy New Year.” The alternative message read “The President and Mrs. Johnson extend Seasons Greetings and Best Wishes for the Near Year.” Because these Christmas cards were designed without a year on the front, they were almost forgotten –historically speaking – as being the first official White House Christmas cards from President Johnson.
For their first Christmas in the White House, the Johnsons received a large number of holiday cards and letters of support. It was not common protocol to respond to each and every letter, but given the despairing circumstances due to the recent assassination, The White House Correspondence Office requested that they issue a common acknowledgement for all incoming mail. Hallmark created a smaller Christmas card to express the Presidents appreciation. The design featured an embossed Presidential Seal on a white textured stock with a green silk screen border. The imprint read “Thank you for your holiday greeting and best wishes for your happiness in the New Year.” The Correspondence Office mailed out 30,000 of these Christmas thank you cards in 1963.
On December 22, directly before the lighting of the National Community Christmas Tree, a memorial service was held at the Lincoln Memorial to mark the end of the 30 day mourning period for John F. Kennedy. At 6:30PM, President Johnson lit the 71-foot Norway spruce decorated with 8,000 lights. During the Pageant of Peace, the reindeer that were gifted to America by Alaska several years prior were exhibited in a pen on the Ellipse. For his first Christmas speech, Johnson remembered Kennedy and expressed hope that the “nation would not lose the closeness and the sense of sharing and the spirit of mercy and compassion, which these last few days have brought to us all.”
In May of 1964, Bess Abell, Lady Bird Johnson’s social secretary, received a letter from American Greetings Corporation in Cleveland requesting the privilege to supply the White House with gratis Christmas cards. Hallmark had been the go-to Christmas cards company since Eisenhower’s administration, but the president of American Greetings, Irving I. Stone, had been a strong financial supporter of Johnson’s administration. And so Johnson gave the contract to American Greetings.
Executives met with Abell in mid-summer to discuss the design of the official White House Christmas cards from the President and First Lady. Abell recommended the design incorporate the executive mansion as well as the commemorative trees planted by past Presidents. Robert H. Laessig, a staff designer for American Greetings, was asked to come up with the design for the Johnsons’ 1964 Christmas cards. So he flew to Washington to get inspiration for his work.
Of several watercolors that he painted, the design that was chosen featured a Southwestern willow, the commemorative tree that Johnson planted later that year, with the White House appearing over several smaller trees in the background. Laessig included depictions of the Johnsons’ two daughters, Lynda and Luci, playing with the First Family’s two beagles, Him and Her.
American Greetings created a black and white rendering of Laessigs watercolor for the President and Mrs. Johnson’s official White House Christmas cards of 1964. Over 3,000 Christmas cards were ordered with the imprint “With our wishes for a joyous Christmas and Happy New Year.” The President also ordered 175 cards that read “Seasons Greetings and best wishes for the New Year.” Additionally, the President ordered 25,000 of Laessig’s watercolor Christmas cards for his Correspondence Office. These cards contained the imprint “Thank you for your holiday greeting and best wishes for happiness in the New Year.”
American Greetings reproduced 4,500 color copies of Laessig’s watercolor on 14 x 18-inch paper for the Johnsons’ Christmas gift prints to their White House staff members. Each gift print was placed in a folder marked with a Presidential Seal and then inserted into a white envelope adorned with red ribbon and a large gold foil Presidential Seal.
On December 18th just before 7PM, President Johnson lit the 73-foot Adirondack white spruce from New York. The National Community Christmas Tree of 1964 was decorated with 7,500 lights and 5,000 ornaments, and the customary star tree topper was replaced with a more traditional cross. With a lunar eclipse in the sky, the President addressed the American people in his annual Christmas greeting, which had a theme of peace. He said, “At this Christmas season of 1964, we can think of broader and brighter horizons than any who have lived before these times. For there is a rising in the sky of the age a new star the star of peace.”
The President maintained his new working relationship with American Greetings into the following year. Robert Laessig’s services were again requested for the 1965 White House gift prints and the official Presidential Christmas cards. Continuing the tradition of painting the White House with its surrounding Presidential plantings, Laessig focused on a landscaped area known as the Jefferson Mound. The final version, entitled Winter at the White House, featured a watercolor painting of two large snow-covered trees in the foreground with the White House in the background and two girls walking the First Family’s dogs, Him and Her. The President and Mrs. Johnson were very pleased with Laessig’s creation.
American Greetings reproduced 2,760 gift prints of Laessig’s Winter at the White House painting. The gift prints were given to the White House staff at the annual Christmas party, and each was accompanied by a parchment scroll providing a brief historical synopsis of the Presidential plantings featured in the watercolor painting. Two hundred executive staff members also received a framed and matted reproduction of W.H. Bartlett’s engraving, Washing from the Presidents House.
Following in suit from the year prior, Laessig’s watercolor was also used as the design for the official Presidential Christmas cards of 1965. American Greetings printed 2,200 cards with the imprint “With our wishes for a Joyous Christmas and a Happy New Year.” On 200 cards, an alternative imprint was used which read “Seasons Greetings and Best Wishes for the New Year.” President Johnson also ordered 27,800 signed Christmas correspondence cards with the imprint “Thank you for your holiday greetings and best wishes for happiness in the New Year.”
On December 17, the President lit the National Community Christmas Tree at 5:20PM. A 70-foot blue spruce from the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation, the tree was the first ever presented by a Native American tribe for use at the national Christmas tree lighting ceremony. With Johnson’s move to strengthen America’s military presence in Vietnam, he spoke of the soldiers in combat in his Christmas greeting to the American people. Focusing on our strife for peace, he said, “We know that peace is not merely the absence of war. It is that climate in which man may be liberated from the hopelessness that imprisons spirit.”
Keeping with the theme of the Presidential plantings, the 1966 White House Christmas cards and gift prints featured a reproduction of another watercolor done by Laessig. Instead of a traditional winter scene, however, the watercolor depicted a night view of a grand American elm, planted by Woodrow Wilson in 1913, with the lit-up North Portico of the White House in the background. American Greetings reproduced 3,000 gift prints in six different hues, each protected in a folder embossed with the Presidential Seal. Similar to the year prior, each gift was also accompanied by a parchment scroll providing an historical description of the reproduction.
The gift prints were given out to the White House staff at the annual Christmas party. Executive staff members also received a matted engraving of August Kollner’s Presidents House. In addition to the gift prints, American Greetings printed 2,400 official Presidential Christmas cards with various Christmas and non-religious greetings. The large order of thank you Christmas correspondence cards was discontinued.
On December 15, shortly before the lighting of the National Community Christmas Tree, President Johnson attended a holiday reception being held by Mrs. Johnson for Vietnam veterans. Before departing the event, he said, “No guests have ever been more welcome in the White House.” At 5:20PM, Johnson lit the 65-foot red fir from California. Marking the 175th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, the Presidents Christmas message made mention of the 20 million African Americans who “…still yearn for the rights and dignity that the rest of us take for granted.” He also talked about peace in Vietnam, stating that peace was still “some time ahead” but the “tide of the battle [had] turned.”
For the official White House Christmas cards and gift prints of 1967, Mrs. Johnson decided to end the Presidential plantings series and instead requested that Laessig paint the official White House Christmas tree, which was on display in the Blue Room. President Johnson and the First Lady ordered 2,600 Presidential Christmas cards and 3,000 gift prints, all featuring Laessig’s Blue Room Christmas tree painting.
The gift prints were enclosed in a blue envelope embossed with a Presidential Seal and adorned with gold ribbon. Each print was also accompanied by the customary parchment message, which provided a brief history of the official White House Christmas tree. Additionally, executive White House staff members also received a personalized and matted engraving of T. Sinclair’s Mills Colossal Equestrian Statue of General Andrew Jackson.
On December 15, President Johnson lit the 70-foot balsam fir from Vermont. The National Community Christmas Tree was decorated with 4,000 lights and 250 gold balls. Toronto’s Festival Singers performed for the 4,500 attendees, marking the first time that a choral group from a foreign nation participated in the opening Christmas tree lighting ceremony. In his Christmas message to the American people, Johnson remembered those fighting in Southeast Asia. He said, “Today, a young soldier, in the prime of his life, was killed in the central Highlands of Vietnam.” He continued, “Half a million brave men who love their country and are willing to die for their land will be celebrating Christmas in a strange land, surrounded by weapons of war A part of every American heart will be with them.”
For the Johnsons’ last Christmas in the White House, straying from the winter scene-themed gift prints from previous years, Mrs. Johnson requested that the 1968 Christmas prints feature a spring or summer scene of the White House grounds. Always-obliging Robert Laessig came to Washington in the spring and worked up several creations for the First Lady. The watercolor that she fell in love with featured a springtime view of the South Lawn from the South Portico (Mrs. Johnson’s favorite view from the White House) with the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial in the distance.
President Johnson and the First Lady ordered 3,680 Christmas gift prints depicting Laessig’s South Lawn watercolor. The gift prints wouldn’t have been complete without the accompanying parchment scroll, which explained the symbolism of each element in the view from the South Portico. For the final gift to their White House executive staff members, the Johnsons gave a matted engraving of H. Brown’s The Presidents House, Washington.
For the first time (and last time) since their stay at the White House, the President and First Lady chose a different design for the official Presidential Christmas cards. The design depicted a Laessig winter-scene watercolor featuring snow-covered fir tree branches in the foreground with the White House in the background and, of course, two girls walking the First Family’s beagles. The President ordered 2,300 White House Christmas cards with the imprint “With our wishes for a joyous Christmas and a Happy New Year.” An additional 300 cards were ordered with the imprint “Seasons Greetings and Best Wishes for the New Year.”
On the bitter cold evening of December 16, President Johnson lit his last National Community Christmas Tree. At the touch of a button, the 74-foot Engelmann spruce from Utah lit up with 4,000 blue and green lights. During his last two years as President, Johnson’s credibility began to slip. With the Vietnam War still going strong and with no end in sight, Americans began to question their President’s motives. And with the Civil Rights movement on the rise, urban riots broke out across the nation. In his final Christmas greeting to the American people, Johnson prayed for peace in Southeast Asia and reconciliation on domestic soil. In his departing words he said, “We cannot say that we have triumphed in this endeavor. But we have begun at long last.”
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