11 Women Warriors of World War II

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There are more stories of heroism out of World War II than can ever fit in a school textbook, but hundreds of those stories are written down somewhere for those who want to find them. Over 100 million military personnel participated in the war, including many women. Here are the stories of eleven of these brave women. They are from many countries, and they all did their part and more for the Allied effort.

1. Nancy Wake: Guerrilla Fighter

Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Nancy Wake was a journalist in New York and London and then married a wealthy Frenchman and was living in Marseille when Germany invaded. Wake immediately went to work for the French resistance, hiding and smuggling men out of France and ferrying contraband supplies and falsified documents. She was once captured and interrogated for days, but gave no secrets away. With the Nazis in hot pursuit, Wake managed to escape to Britain in 1943, and joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British intelligence agency. After training with weapons and parachutes, she was airdropped back into France—as an official spy and warrior. Wake had no trouble shooting Nazis or blowing up buildings with the French guerrilla fighters known as maquis in the service of the resistance. She once killed an SS sentry with her bare hands. After the war, Nancy Wake was awarded the George Medal from the British, the Medal of Freedom from the U.S., and the Médaille de la Résistance and three Croix de Guerre from France, among other honors. She also found out that her husband had died in 1943 when the Gestapo had tortured him to find out his wife's whereabouts. He refused any cooperation to the point of death.

Wake ran for political office a few times in Australia, and remarried in the 1950s. She published her biography, The White Mouse, in 1988. That was the Gestapo's nickname for her due to her talent for sneaking by them. Nancy Wake died August 7, 2011 at age 98.

2. Elsie Ott: Flight Nurse

Lieutenant Elsie S. Ott was the first woman to receive the U.S. Air Medal. Already a trained nurse, she joined the Army Air Corps in 1941 and was sent to Karachi, India. The Army Air Corps was considering using airplanes to evacuate injured military as they delivered fresh troops. Ott was assigned to the first evacuation flight with only 24 hours notice -and she had never flown before. The plane had no medical equipment beyond first aid kit supplies, the patients had a motley variety of injuries, diseases, and mental illnesses, and there was only one army medic to help her care for the passengers. The plane left India on January 17, 1943 and made several stops, picking up more patients, on its 6-day flight to Washington, D.C. The previous route for such a mission was by ship, and took three months. Ott wrote up a report on that flight, recommending important changes for further evacuation flights. She returned to India a few months later with a new unit, the 803rd Military Air Evacuation Squad, and was promoted to captain in 1946.

3. Natalia Peshkova: Combat Medic

Natalia Peshkova was drafted into the Russian Army straight out of high school at age 17. She was trained with weapons that didn't work and then sent off with a unit so woefully equipped that at one time a horse ate her felt boot as she slept, forcing her to make do with one boot for a month. Peshkova spent three years at the front, accompanying wounded soldiers from the front to hospitals and trying to fight disease and starvation among the troops. She was wounded three times. Once, when the Germans moved into an area the Soviets held, Peshkova was separated from her unit and had to disguise herself. However, she could not discard her weapon because she knew the Soviet Army would execute her for losing it! Yet she made it back to her unit undetected. As the war dragged on, Peshkova was promoted to Sergeant Major and given political education duties further from the front. After the war, she was awarded the Order of the Red Star for bravery.

4. Susan Travers: French Foreign Legionnaire

Englishwoman Susan Travers was a socialite living in France when the war broke out. She trained as a nurse for the French Red Cross and became an ambulance driver. When France fell to the Nazis, she escaped to London via Finland and joined the Free French Forces. In 1941, Travers was sent with the French Foreign Legion as a driver to Syria and then to North Africa. Assigned to drive Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig, she fell in love with him. In Libya, her unit was besieged by Rommel's Afrika Corps, but Travers refused to be evacuated with the other female personnel. After hiding for 15 days in sand pits, the unit decided to make a break at night. The enemy noticed the escaping convoy when a land mine went off. Driving the lead vehicle with Koenig, Travers took off at breakneck speed under machine gun fire and broke through the enemy lines, leading 2,500 troops to the safety of an Allied encampment hours later. Her car was full of bullet holes. Travers was promoted to General, and served in Italy, Germany, and France during the remainder of the war. She was wounded once during that period driving over a land mine.

After the war, Travers applied to become a an official member of the French Foreign Legion. She did not specify her sex on the application, and it was accepted -rubber-stamped by an officer who knew and admired her. Travers was the only woman ever to serve with the Legion as an official member, and was posted to Vietnam during the First Indo-China War. Some of her awards were the Légion d'honneur, Croix de Guerre and Médaille Militaire. Travers waited until the year 2000, when she was 91 years old, to publish her autobiography Tomorrow to Be Brave: A Memoir of the Only Woman Ever to Serve in the French Foreign Legion. By then, both her husband (whom she met after World War II) and Colonel Koenig (who was a married man during the war) had passed away.

5. Reba Whittle: POW Nurse

Lt. Reba Whittle was the only U.S. female soldier to be imprisoned as a POW in the European theater of war. Whittle was a flight nurse with the 813th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron, and had logged over 500 hours. On a flight from England to France to pick up casualties in September of 1944, her plane went off course and was shot down over Aachen, Germany. The few survivors were taken prisoner. The Germans did not know what to do with Whittle, as she was their first female military POW -at least on the Western Front. In the East, many female Russian soldiers were interned as POWs and used for forced labor. Whittle, who was initially rejected by the Army Air Corps in 1941 for being underweight, was allowed to minister to the wounded in camp. A Swiss legation that negotiated POW transfers, mostly of wounded prisoners, discovered her in custody and began to arrange her release. Whittle was escorted by the German Red Cross away from the camp along with 109 male POWS on January 25th, 1945.

Whittle's status as a POW was undocumented by the U.S. military. She was awarded the Air Medal and a Purple Heart, and promoted to lieutenant, but was denied disability or POW retirement benefits. Her injuries kept her from flying, so she worked in an Army hospital in California until she left the service in 1946. Whittle applied for, and was denied, POW status and back pay for ten years. She finally accepted a cash settlement in 1955. While nurses who were imprisoned in Asia had received hero's receptions upon their release, Whittle's story was kept quiet by the Army and barely noticed by the media in the celebrations of the war's end. Whittle died of breast cancer in 1981. Her POW status was officially conferred by the military in 1983.

6. Eileen Nearne: British Spy

Eileen Nearne joined the Special Operations Executive in Britain as a radio operator. Two of her siblings also served the SOE. Only 23 years old, Nearne was dropped by parachute into occupied France to relay messages from the French resistance and to arrange weapons drops. She talked her way out of trouble several times, but was eventually arrested by the Nazis, tortured, and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. Yet Nearne stuck to her cover story. She was transferred to a labor camp and escaped during yet another transfer. Once again, Nearne talked her way out of trouble when confronted by the Gestapo and hid in a church until the area was liberated by the Americans.

After the war, Nearne was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French and was made a a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by King George VI. She suffered some psychological problems and lived a quiet life with her sister Jacqueline (also a British spy during the war) until Jacqueline's death in 1982. When Eileen Nearne died in 2010, her body was not discovered for several days, and her wartime exploits were only revealed after a search of her apartment uncovered her war medals. Nearne was then given a hero's funeral.

7. Ruby Bradley: POW Nurse

Colonel Ruby Bradley was a career Army nurse well before the war began. She was a hospital administrator on Luzon Island in the Philippines when the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor. Bradley hid in the hills with a doctor and another nurse when the Japanese overran the island. Turned over by locals, they were taken back to their former base, which had been turned into a prison camp. They once again went to work aiding the sick and injured, though with fewer supplies and hardly any equipment. Bradley spent over three years as a POW, performing surgery, delivering babies, smuggling supplies, and comforting the dying in the camps. When she was finally liberated by U.S. troops in 1945, she weighed a mere 84 pounds, down from her normal 110 pounds. You can read Bradley's own account of her imprisonment.

But wait -there's more! After the war, Bradley stayed with the Army and earned her bachelor's degree. In 1950 she went to Korea as the 8th Army's chief nurse, working at the front lines. During one medical evacuation just ahead of the enemy, she loaded all the wounded soldiers and was the last person to jump aboard the plane, just as her ambulance exploded from the shelling. Bradley remained in Korea through the entire conflict. Bradley's 34 medals and citations included two Legions of Merit and two Bronze Stars from the Army, which also promoted her to Colonel. She was also awarded the International Red Cross' highest honor, the Florence Nightingale Medal. Bradley retired from the Army in 1963, but continued to work as a supervising nurse in West Virginia for 17 years. When she died in 2002 (at age 94), she was buried with honors at Arlington Cemetery.

8. Krystyna Skarbek: Polish Spy

Krystyna Skarbek (later Christine Granville) was the daughter of a Polish Count and the granddaughter of a wealthy Jewish banker. Skarbek's second husband was a diplomat, and they were together in Ethiopia when World War II broke out. Skarbek signed up with Britain's Section D to return to Poland through Hungary and facilitate communications with the Allies. Impressed with the "flaming Polish patriot," the British intelligence service accepted her plan. Beginning in 1939, Skarbek worked to organize Polish resistance groups and smuggle Polish pilots out of the occupied nation. She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, but faked a case of TB by biting her tongue until it bled. They let her go after hours of interrogation. Skarbek and her partner Andrzej Kowerski went to the British embassy and received new identities as Christine Granville and Andrew Kennedy. They were smuggled out of Poland through Yugoslavia to Turkey, where they were welcomed by the British.

In Cairo in 1944, Granville and Kennedy founded themselves persona non grata because the Polish group they had been working with, the Musketeers, had been compromised by German spies. Granville could not be sent back to Poland, and instead trained as a radio operator and paratrooper. After D-Day she was dropped into France, but her assigned resistance area was overrun with Germans, so she escaped, hiking 70 miles to safety. She then worked in the Alps to turn Axis fighters. Granville's success rate was almost supernatural and she took extraordinary risks to pull off further capers. The most famous was when she outed herself as a spy to French officials working for the Gestapo, and arranged a prisoner release by threats and promises of money. Granville and the prisoners made it out alive, which secured her reputation as a legendary spy.

After the war, Granville was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Medal, and was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). However, Granville was at loose ends without the adrenaline rush of her wartime exploits. She did not return to Poland, as it was under Russian authority, but lived in Britain, Africa, and then Australia. Granville was murdered in 1952 by Dennis Muldowney, a stalker who had become obsessed with her. There was a rumor that Granville carried on a one-year affair with Ian Fleming, but there is no evidence to support it. However, she is considered to be the inspiration for at least two of his Bond girls.

9. Lyudmila Pavlichenko: Russian Sniper

Unlike many of the young girl snipers of the Soviet Army, Lyudmila Pavlichenko was an accomplished sharpshooter before joining the military. She was older than the others as well, and was in her fourth year of study at Kiev University when war broke out. The Russian Army sent around 2,000 trained female snipers to the front during the war; only around 500 survived. Pavlichenko had by far the greatest war record of them all, with 309 confirmed kills, including 36 enemy snipers. And that was accomplished by 1942! Pavlichenko was wounded by a mortar and pulled from the front. Because of her record, she was sent on a public relations tour to Canada and the United States to drum up support for the war effort and make an impression on the Allies. She was never sent back to the front, but served during the remainder of the war as a sniper trainer. Pavlichenko earned the title Hero of the Soviet Union. After the war, she completed her university degree and became a historian and served on the the Soviet Committee of the Veterans of War.

10. Aleda Lutz: Flight Nurse

1st Lt. Aleda E. Lutz volunteered with the unit inaugurated by Elsie Ott (see #2), the 803rd Military Air Evacuation Squad, designed to carry wounded soldiers quickly away from the war front. Lutz flew 196 missions to evacuate more than 3,500 men. No other flight nurse logged as many hours as Lutz. She would have stretched that record of 814 hours out further, but in December of 1944, her C47 hospital plane picked up wounded soldiers from Lyon, Italy, and then crashed. There were no survivors. Lutz was the first woman ever awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, conferred posthumously. This was in addition to the Air Medal (earned four times), the Oak Leaf Cluster, the Red Cross Medal, and the Purple Heart. In 1990, the Veterans Administration Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan was named in her honor.

11. Noor Inayat Khan: Spy Princess

Princess Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan had a particularly distinguished background. Her father was Indian Sufi master and musician Inayat Khan; her mother was American Ora Ray Baker, the niece of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, and her paternal great-great-grandfather was the ruler of Kingdom of Mysore. Noor was born in Russia; her younger siblings were born in England. She held a British passport, but lived in France when Germany invaded. The family was able to escape to England ahead of the Germans, and Noor Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The British intelligence agency SOE took her as a wireless operator and sent her to France in June of 1943. There, she transmitted information out of France by Morse code. She refused to quit, even as other radio operators were arrested. Khan was arrested in October by the German intelligence agency (SD) and fought them so fiercely that she was classified as "an extremely dangerous prisoner." A month of interrogation yielded no information about Khan's SOE activities, and she even sent a coded message about her compromised position (which the SOE ignored). However, the Germans found her notebooks, which gave them enough information to send false messages and lure more British spies to France and arrest. In November, Khan escaped briefly, but was caught and then kept in shackles for ten months. In September of 1944, Khan was transferred to Dachau, where she was immediately executed along with three other female SOE agents.

Khan was posthumously awarded the British George Cross, the French Croix de Guerre with Gold Star, and was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). The strange part of her story was that Khan was a Sufi Muslim pacifist of Indian origin. She opposed the British rule of India, and if it weren't for the Nazi invasion of Europe, might had fought against the British instead of for them.

13 Alternative Lyrics From “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)
craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)

First published in English in 1780, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (actually the 12 days after Christmas) is thought to have originated in France as a children’s forfeit game with ever more elaborate gifts added to the collection, verse by verse, as a test of memory. Whatever its origins may be, however, as the carol grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, numerous versions and variations of its lyrics began to emerge.

Some of these differences still survive in different versions sung today: The traditional “five gold rings” are sometimes described as “five golden rings,” and while some performances describe what “my true love gave to me,” others say the gifts were “sent to me.” But these kinds of subtle differences are nothing compared to some of the gifts in the song’s earlier incarnations.

1. "A Very Pretty Peacock"

One early version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was recorded by the Scottish poet and artist William Scott Bell in 1892. Although most of Bell’s lyrics are identical to what we sing today, in his version each verse concludes not with “a partridge in a pear tree,” but with a considerably more ostentatious “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.”

2. "Four Canary Birds"

In the original 1780 version, the “four calling birds” are instead described as “four colly birds,” colly—literally “coaly”—being an old English dialect word meaning “soot-black.” By the mid-19th century, however, the word colly had largely fallen out of use, leaving several Victorian editions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to come up with their own replacements. “Colour’d birds” and even “curley birds” were used in some editions, while an exotic “four canary birds” were added to the lyrics of one version. The now standard “four calling birds” first appeared in the early 1900s.

3. And 4. "Eight Hares A-Running" and "Eleven Badgers Baiting"

In 1869, an article appeared in an English magazine called The Cliftonian that described a traditional Christmas in rural Gloucestershire, southwest England. The author of the piece wrote that he had heard some local carol singers singing a curious Christmas song, which he noted for the “peculiarity and the utter absurdity of the words.” After outlining the first two of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," he went on to explain that the carol “proceeds in this ascending manner until on the twelfth day of Christmas the young lady receives … [an] astounding tribute of true love”—among which are “eight hares a-running” and “eleven badgers baiting.”

5., 6., 7., And 8. "Seven Squabs A-Swimming," "Eight Hounds A-Running," "Nine Bears A-Beating," And "TEN Cocks A-Crowing"

One of the earliest American versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was listed in The American Journal of Folklore in 1900. Credited to a contributor from Salem, Massachusetts, and dated to “about 1800,” there are no pipers, drummers, maids, or swans here (and lords and ladies had a number change). Instead, in their place are “ten cocks a-crowing,” “nine bears a-beating,” “eight hounds a-running,” and “seven squabs a-swimming.”

9. And 10. "Ten Asses Racing" and "Eleven Bulls A-Beating"

An edition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" included in Folk Songs From Somerset published in 1911 discarded the “pipers piping” and “lords a-leaping” in favor of “eleven bulls a-beating” and “ten asses racing.” In fact, not even the partridge in the pear tree made the final cut here: In its place was a “part of a mistletoe bough.”

11. and 12. "Ten Ships A-Sailing" and "Eleven Ladies Spinning"

In an 1842 edition of Specimens of Lyric Poetry, out went the “ten drummers drumming” and the “eleven lords a-leaping” (downgraded to only nine lords, still a-leaping) and in came “ten ships a-sailing” and “eleven ladies spinning.” Not only that, but this edition also explained in a footnote how "The Twelve Days of Christmas" might once have been used: “Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. The accumulative process is a favourite with children.”

13. "An Arabian Baboon"

An alternative Scots version of "The Twelve Day of Christmas" was reported in use in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century, before finding its way into a collection of Popular Rhymes of Scotland published in 1847. Although there are a handful of similarities between this version and the version we’d sing today (“ducks a-merry laying” and “swans a-merry swimming” both make an appearance), relatively little of what we’d recognize remains intact. “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day,” is the new opening line, and many of the gifts are given in sets of three rather than as part of a larger 12-part sequence—but it’s what the gifts themselves are that is the most striking. Alongside the swans and ducks, the king sends his lady “a bull that was brown,” “a goose that was gray,” “three plovers,” “a papingo-aye” (an old Scots dialect word for a parrot, although occasionally translated as peacock)—and, just when things can’t get any stranger, “an Arabian baboon.”

When Theodore Roosevelt’s Son Snuck a Christmas Tree into the White House

George Varian, Ladies Home Journal // Public Domain, Courtesy of HathiTrust
George Varian, Ladies Home Journal // Public Domain, Courtesy of HathiTrust

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

On Christmas morning 1902, the children of Theodore and Edith Roosevelt woke up early, got dressed, and began banging on the door of their parents’ White House bedroom. It was there, Roosevelt explained the next day in a letter to James Garfield, grandson of former president James A. Garfield, that “six stockings, all bulging out with queer angles and rotundities, were hanging from the fireplace.”

The six members of the Roosevelt brood were not the only ones to receive gifts that day. Archie, the president’s second-youngest child, had a surprise for his parents, too: a little Christmas tree, which he had hidden in a closet and “rigged up with the help of one of the carpenters.” Hanging from the tree were gifts for the family and some of the Roosevelt’s veritable menagerie of pets: “Jack the dog, Tom Quartz the kitten, and Algonquin the pony, whom Archie would no more think of neglecting [than] I would neglect his brothers and sisters,” Roosevelt wrote.

Christmas trees laden with glittering decorations are now a central part of the White House holiday tradition. The official White House tree is formally welcomed by the First Lady and installed in the Blue Room—a custom that began in 1912. Some first families have opted to deck the White House halls with dozens of Christmas trees. But if Archie Roosevelt hadn’t ferreted his secret gift into the official residence in 1902, there may not have been a Christmas tree in the White House that year, the second of Roosevelt’s presidency.

"There will be no Christmas tree at the White House"

Newspaper reports from the time remarked with interest that the president’s family would not celebrate the holiday with a tree. The New York Sun, for instance, published an article in late December 1902 noting that while the Roosevelts would spend the morning exchanging gifts, “there will be no Christmas tree at the White House.”

White House Christmas decorations
A Christmas tree was set up in the East Room of the White House in 1936 at the end of President Franklin Roosevelt's first term.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publications

Rumors soon began to spread as to why a twinkling evergreen was not part of the family’s planned Christmas decor. A now-ubiquitous anecdote emerged: The president, a staunch conservationist, had imposed a ban on Christmas trees in the White House. And 8-year-old Archie found a way to circumvent the rule, bringing an extra dash of holiday cheer to the residence.

It wasn’t an outlandish theory. Roosevelt was indeed a leading figure of America’s conservation movement, which arose in response to the heavy exploitation of natural resources in the mid- to late-19th century. Though an avid hunter, Roosevelt was troubled by the mass slaughter of big game species like bison and elk. He recognized that the country’s natural resources were finite, its environment vulnerable and in need of protection. During his presidency, Roosevelt created the United States Forest Service and established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and, with the signing of the 1906 American Antiquities Act, 18 national monuments.

“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” Roosevelt once wrote. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

"The Forestry Fad"

Some environmental advocates in Roosevelt’s day opposed harvesting evergreens for use as Christmas trees. In late December 1899, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that Roosevelt’s predecessor, President William McKinley, had received “many letters … begging Mr. McKinley to refuse to have a Christmas tree.” The writers had “taken up the forestry fad,” decrying the “Christmas tree habit” as “an immense and lamentable destruction of young firs and spruces,” according to the publication.

But Jamie Lewis, historian at the Forest History Society, says he has not found evidence that the 26th president ever took a similar stance on the Christmas tree quandary. In fact, Gifford Pinchot, head of the U.S. Forest Service who collaborated closely with Roosevelt on conservation matters, did not believe forests would be harmed by cutting down evergreens at Christmas time.

“Ultimately,” Lewis tells Mental Floss, “[Roosevelt] had no ban on Christmas trees.”

Lewis thinks there is a simpler explanation as to why the president decided to forgo this particular holiday symbol: “As far as I know, it was family tradition that they just didn't have a tree.”

Christmas trees at the White House
Workers put Christmas decorations on the front of the White House in 1939, during President Franklin Roosevelt's second term.
Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

The Baltimore Sun reported as much in a December 1901 article, which explained that “[t]here will be no Christmas tree [in the White House], as a tree has never been part of the celebration of Christmas in the Roosevelt family.” In an earlier article, the same publication suggested that with six children and multiple guests traipsing through the White House, there simply wasn’t enough room for a tree.

“In the private part of the house conditions are such that Mrs. Roosevelt finds she cannot devote a single room to a tree and therefore it has been decided by the President and herself that the children must have their tree at the home of their uncle and aunt,” the Sun reported.

Robert Lincoln O’Brien, a journalist who served as the White House executive clerk during the Cleveland administration, echoes this sentiment in his account of Archie’s surprise Christmas tree, which appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1903. “The main motive of Mr. and Mrs. Roosevelt … is to enjoy Christmas as simply as possible,” O’Brien writes. “Almost every room of the White House at the holiday season, in a family of so many children, is overloaded with things; trees upon which to display them would only add so much more.”

"Pagan Symbols"

Today, this might seem like a rather Grinch-like attitude. But at the turn of the 20th century, not every home in America where Christmas was celebrated would have a bedecked evergreen. In fact, Christmas trees had only recently become a widely accepted feature of the holiday season. As late as the 1840s, many Americans, influenced by the country’s Puritan roots, saw Christmas trees as pagan symbols. Immigrants from Germany, where it was common practice to honor the holiday with a decorated tree, helped usher in a fondness for the custom. Even then, however, Christmas trees were typically reserved for households with children; presents would be stored under, or hung from, the evergreen.

Christmas tree at the White House
The White House Christmas tree was arranged in the Blue Room in 1961, during John F. Kennedy's first year in office.
Robert L. Knudsen, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library // Public Domain

The same was true of the America’s first families. “Presidents Grant and Cleveland both had Christmas trees in the White House only because they had young children,” Lewis writes on the Forest History Society website, “while presidents without young children had no tree.”

Roosevelt, of course, had multiple little ones living with him at the White House, which is perhaps why the family’s tree-less Christmas was remarked upon in contemporary newspaper reports.

“They were a dynamic, fascinating family that the press loved covering,” Lewis explains, adding that journalists may have been particularly eager for content as Christmas approached.

“Congress would have adjourned weeks before,” he says. “They weren't working right up until the week before Christmas. So [the media is] desperate for copy, and here we have this fascinating family. I think some of the myth and legend is born out of boredom, frankly.”

The tale of clever Archie flouting a presidential ban in 1902 certainly made for a good story—even if it wasn’t an entirely accurate one. In subsequent years, Lewis writes, newspaper articles not only remarked that the Roosevelts would once again not have a Christmas tree, but also speculated whether Archie would “pull a fast one” on his father.

“An Ideal Christmas”

If there was no ban, it seems more likely that Archie’s intention was simply to present his parents with a nice gift. In his letter to Garfield, Roosevelt describes the tree as a “surprise,” and doesn’t seem cross about the gesture.

“[A]ll the children came into our bed and there they opened their stockings,” he wrote. “Afterwards we got ready and took breakfast, and then all went into the library where each child had a table set for his bigger presents.”

Christmas tree at the White House
Lyndon Johnson set up a modest Christmas tree in the White House in 1963.
White House Photo Office, LBJ Presidential Library // Public Domain

Archie’s tree also may have planted the seeds for a new family custom. In late December 1906, Roosevelt noted in a letter to his sister that “Archie and [his younger brother] Quentin have gradually worked [up] a variant on what is otherwise a strictly inherited form of our celebration, for they fix up (or at least Archie fixes up) a special Christmas tree in Archie’s room.”

That year, the Roosevelt children decorated a second tree for their parents—perhaps to surprise them, now that Archie’s “variant” had become part of the Christmas tradition. While Roosevelt and his wife, Edith, were busy admiring Archie’s tree, “two of the children had [slipped] out,” the president explains, “and when we got back to our own room there was a small lighted Christmas tree with two huge stockings for Edith and myself.”

It was, Roosevelt writes, “an ideal Christmas.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER