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  • Mary Evans Seeley

Pat Nixon’s Christmas Surprises

Before moving to the White House, Richard and Pat Nixon always made Christmas special and different. Their friends looked to them for surprises they would create for the holidays. At the White House, they enjoyed planning surprises, because they wanted to share the house with as many people as possible.


The Nixons initiated candlelight tours of the mansion during their first Christmas at the White House. Chandeliers were dimmed, fires were set ablaze in the fireplace and music was played throughout the house. The Nixons, in the family quarters, often heard guests singing along with the music as they toured the house.


The candlelight tours became a popular Nixon tradition, but could only be enjoyed if visitors lived in the area or traveled to Washington. For the rest of the country the Nixons hosted television specials. "Christmas in the White House" aired on Christmas Eve in 1969 and featured an interview of Mrs. Nixon and daughter, Tricia, by Time magazine reporter Bonnie Angelo. In 1971, NBC aired “A Day in the Presidency” on December 6, with correspondent John Chancellor as commentator.


Under Mrs. Nixon’s personal supervision, the Great Hall was dressed in all of its holiday finery, more than in previous years. In 1969, it became the back drop for the 19 foot Christmas tree decked with huge ornate ornaments, representing each state’s flower.


Beginning in 1969, Pat Nixon, working with German-born pastry chef, Hans Raffert, gave life to what is now the most treasured of White House traditions-- the Gingerbread House. The two-foot high house, A-Frame design, was held together with six pounds of icing, five pounds of cookies, one pound of hard candy, and a dozen peppermint candy canes. Altogether the edible house weighed 40 pounds. One year, miniature figures of the family dogs sat outside the front door.


For the first time in 25 years, green wreaths and red candles were hung in the 16 windows facing Pennsylvania Avenue. Mrs. Nixon admitted, “we love to decorate; you can’t overdo at Christmas.”


In 1970, Pat Nixon surprised the public when she pushed a button to illuminate the exterior of the White House and transformed it into a monument within a city of monuments. President Nixon said, “The lighting of the White House is being given as a gift to the nation. Once the White House is lighted at night, it will be seen by millions of Americans.”


In the East Wing corridor where visitors begin their tour of the White House, special cases displayed past and present official Christmas cards of presidents Hoover through Nixon, a card from Winston Churchill, and 3 cards received by Rutherford B. Hayes during his 1877-81 Presidency. A second case featured Christmas ornaments representing each of these administrations, as well as other special artifacts, like the 1866 edition of A Christmas Carol read by FDR , the red fire engine President Hoover gave to sons of his secretary as a memento of the 1929 fire at the White House, and the doll house made by White House carpenter’s for President Hayes’ granddaughter.


By Christmas 1971, Mrs. Nixon had completed her refurbishing of the Red Room and the Green Room and surprised the public by showcasing them on the White House tour. She said, “the rooms are so full of beauty they just need a little dressing up for Christmas.. .It was my idea to have lots of things in pots that can be watered easily. Potted miniature ivy makes marvelous garland across the mantels and the greenery helps to hide the pots holding the poinsettias.”


In 1972, the Nixon refurbished Blue Room was open to the public. It was there that the First Lady chose to place the White House Christmas tree, a 20-foot Noble fir from Washington State.


A Monroe Christmas was Mrs. Nixon’s theme for Christmas 1973. As First Lady, Pat Nixon acquired things for the White House that others had not. These included seven portraits of former First Ladies and six original portraits of former Presidents. In addition, she is credited with acquiring American paintings, chandeliers, period rugs, furniture and 10 pieces of the Monroe furniture, that were found in the basement of the Philadelphia Museum. Curator, Clem Conger described this acquisition as “the greatest retrieval of White House furniture in the history of the White House.”


Mrs. Nixon had told a House and Garden writer, “I suppose of the places we’ve spent Christmas, the White House must be our favorite. To be in this historical house with the memories of all the other families who’ve been here means so much—and to realize that we, in our way, are making a moment of history, too.”

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