Historian, author, and collector Mary Evans Seeley presented highlights from her book “Season’s Greetings from the White House” on December 12, 2019 at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum. Evans Seeley has published two books about Christmas at the White House. Through her extensive research she is able to share the human side of Christmas at the White House and preserve an important, but often overlooked, part of presidential history.
Mary Evans Seeley and her husband, Ronald, have the most extensive collection of Presidential Christmas memorabilia in the country. Parts of The Seeley Collection have been on display at the White House on two occasions and have been on exhibit at ten Presidential Libraries.
Her book, “Season’s Greetings from the White House” is now in its eighth edition, and documents nearly a century of presidential Christmas cards, messages and gifts from Presidents Calvin Coolidge to Donald Trump. This historical book is filled with captivating behind-the-scenes stories and personal recollections of every First Family, every year since 1923, and the first National Christmas tree.
Throughout her presentation, Evans Seeley highlights stories from her research and conversations with eight First Ladies, including Mrs. Betty Ford. Evans Seeley remarked on the openness of Mrs. Ford, with a gracious, down to Earth personality during their discussions.
Memorable Christmas-themed reflections from Mrs. Ford included: “The family that skis together, stays together”; how Mrs. Ford appreciated being familiar with Christmas at the White House because the Fords had been in Washington 25 years during Gerald R. Ford’s terms as a U. S. Congressman; “I wanted Christmas at the White House to be fun”; and how Mrs. Ford’s favorite Christmas at the White House was in 1976.
Evans Seeley stated that the history of Christmas at the White House started with George Washington. Even though our nation’s first President did not live in the White House, he started the social custom of the New Year’s Day reception. This event was carried to the White House by John Adams, with the event continuing to be open to the public and allowing anyone to shake hands with the President.
By 1930, the crowds grew so large that there were over 6,000 people standing in line for the January 1st reception. The tradition lasted from 1801 to 1932, when President and Mrs. Hoover wanted a break from the crowds and handshaking so they simply went on vacation instead of hosting the event.
In early America Christmas was a regular work day, and it was not until after the Civil War that it was declared a federal holiday during the Administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. President Benjamin Harrison introduced the first White House Christmas Tree for inside the White House in 1889 and President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree on the grounds of the White House in 1923.
Evans Seeley highlighted the various Christmas seasons throughout different Presidential Administrations, including special guests such as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. She would move through her presentation by featuring numerous White House Christmas cards from various First Families, showing the differences in style and themes, while providing backgrounds on the cards. The cards bring to life scenes and artwork of the White House, and imagery of historical American locations and buildings.