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Christmas in the White House – Seven Decades Ago

“You should dream of a white Christmas, not pray for it!” joked Fr. Mike Ryan of St. James Cathedral in Seattle this week. The unusually insistent snows of recent days were frustrating for anyone trying to organize anything, including church services, but they also were lovely. They fed nostalgia, even for days before we were born.

A couple of weeks ago, Curtis Roosevelt, a distant cousin of my wife’s, came through town on a book tour for Too Close to the Sun: Growing Up in the Shadow of My Grandparents, Franklin and Eleanor (Perseus Books). Pat Baillargeon, a thoughtful mutual friend, got us together to plumb the family stack of stories.

Mr. Roosevelt, 78, the oldest of FDR’s grandsons, known as “Buzzie” to family members and the public that followed his activities of the time, still exudes that Hyde Park Roosevelt charm that comes through many an old newsreel and history book of the 30 and early 40s. His book I can now recommend for anyone who wants to experience vicariously the private “sun” of FDR, and, if you will, the magnetic “moon” of that most famous First Lady, Eleanor. There is a melancholy tinge to the story, frankly, because, just as almost all celebrity deceives and betrays unexpectedly (loss of privacy, to begin with), for the children of celebrities—and, in this case, the grandchildren—there is a particular vulnerability to the surprise sting. And, yet, in this telling the melancholy is sweet and compelling.

Some of the most poignant passages surround Christmas. Most of us remember keenly and are likely to romanticize, of course, what it was to be a child at Christmas. But imagine that you enjoyed the season as an impressionable youth growing up in that most unique estates, The White House, coddled by grandparents, including—again, imagine!—a President who liked to see you and your sister each morning when he had breakfast in bed, and at Christmas liked to entertain you and others with grandiloquent readings from A Christmas Carol.

Think of yourself, during the Depression years, spending much of your time in the Family Quarters on the second floor of the White House.

“Late on the afternoon of Christmas eve, the family, plus a few close friends,” Curtis recalls, “joined to watch the first lighting of our private Christmas tree, placed in the East Hall as it was about twenty feet tall, This was a moment of high suspense and anticipation mixed with anxiety. Real candles, each about three inches high, had been placed on all the branches. Buckets of water and sand, meanwhile, stood ready in case of a flaming disaster.”

Apparently, even in the 30s there were bureaucrats who had to be consulted about whatever went on in the nation’s number one unit of public housing. “Im told,” Curtis now reports, “that the the government maintenance officials, horrified at the potential fire hazard, simply closed their eyes when told that the President insisted” (on real candles).

“During the couple of hours leading up to this climactic moment, my grandmother, uncles, and aunts had been decorating the tree with colored balls and tinsel. No friends were allowed to help—only family, only adults—with this tricky exercise…..Papa (FDR) came in to watch the last half hour, commenting drolly on the decorators’ efforts and bestowing his approval on the placement of each colored ball. He could be corny at such times, but, even then, his delivery had an unmatched style.

“Now it was time for the lighting. Illuminating all the candles on our tall tree took several minutes. Stepladders were brought in to reach the higher branches, and my six-foot-plus uncles took care of the top ones. When the last taper had been lit, a great sigh of relief could be heard, although nervousness still hung in the air as we sang, rather poorly, one or two verses of ‘Silent Night’.”

Eleanor, in this and other accounts, is someone who is warm and emotive with strangers, yet finds intimacy with her own family difficult. But the same story also describes a woman of exquisite consideration for those same family members; For only one example, she personally prepared heaping Christmas stockings for all her grandchildren, and even her grown children, with apt gifts, some “practical”, like socks, and some fanciful, like toy soldiers.. She knew them pretty well.

In the toe of each stocking was an orange—still an exotic treat in those days. A decade later in our very modest Midwestern home, my brother and I got oranges in our stockings, but by then they were mainly to provide ballast.

Our family gave up real Christmas candles sometime in the early 40s. They were too dangerous, we were told, and the electric lights were so much more colorful.

But my own household resumed the lighted candle tradition after we lived in Austria in the 1980s. There’s no need for buckets of sand and water next to our tree, however. My wife keeps a fire extinguisher nearby.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.