67 Awesome Halloween Costume Ideas

Since way back in 2007, we've been rounding up our favorite Halloween costumes each year. If you're looking for a costume idea, here are some of the best!

1. Sputnik 2

In 2010, Flickr user vietnamted put together a costume that recreated Sputnik 2, the Soviet spaceship that took the dog Laika into space. Laika is aboard and ready for liftoff, but this Laika survived the mission. See the costume at on Flickr.

2. Yip Yips

500yipyips

Sesame Street's popular aliens, the Yip Yips always appear in twos, so this is a costume that should be worn with a buddy. It take two people to properly fit one according to this Instructable, so you may as well help each other out and into a great costume! You can see the costume in action on Flickr.

3. Optimus Prime

370optimusprime

Instructables member dannyeurena turned cardboard, duct tape, and hot glue into a satisfyingly authentic Optimus Prime costume. According to the accompanying video, it was comfortable enough to dance in!

4. Death Becomes Her

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Evan Booth's costume for Halloween 2006 seemed to be a nondescript "dude in a wig" until you looked at the GAPING HOLE in his midsection! This was accomplished with a camera in the back of the shirt that recorded a background scene and fed it to a travel-size DVD player in the front that displayed the backdrop. In 2008, artist Nicole Magne used the idea for a costume recreating a scene from the movie Death Becomes Her where Goldie Hawn has a hole blown through her body. The creation process is detailed on her blog, and the Instructables version is available if you'd like to try this yourself.

5. Hovering Boba Fett

Linkfilter member Reapre had considered a Rocketeer costume when he hit on the idea of Boba Fett Hovering on a Column of Flame. He used a purchased Boba Fett costume and converted it using a homemade jetpack. The column of flame below hid his legs. Reapre wore platform shoes made from roller blades to make himself several inches taller.

6. Helmet Cat

Flickr user Alida Saxon's brother put this Helmet Cat costume together at the last minute. The helmet is a basketball painted green, and the fur was salvaged from a stuffed toy. Make your favorite internet meme into a Halloween costume and half the folks you encounter will laugh; the other half will scratch their heads and wonder.

7. The Wild Things

A group of five friends dressed as the monsters plus Max from the Maurice Sendak's book Where The Wild Things Are for Halloween 2008. Craftster member sjeanette made papier mache heads of the monsters. The eyes glow in the dark! I can't really tell how one would see while wearing these, but I assume they made a great impression.

8. Mega Man

Kevin made a Mega Man costume for his 3-year-old son a few Halloweens back. What made this so awesome is the Mega Buster with working lights and the authentic helmet fashioned from a bike helmet. See more pictures of the finished product.

9. Bender

Chris Miller made his own Bender costume back in 2005. The eyes moved by a servo controlled by his hands! He was a finalist in a costume contest, but I can't imagine what costume could beat this.

10. Emoticon

The Mask of Emotion hides your face but displays emoticons instead. This helmet was created by the Digital Media Design Dept at Hongik University in Korea. What emoticon is shown is controlled by the wearer's body actions. If you want to make your own, the original website has design specifications and video. It will help if you can read Korean.

11. AT-AT

Katie Mello of LAIKA House in Portland made this AT-AT Costume for her dog Bones. Bones has his own Facebook page, where you can see more pictures: in this costume, other clothing, and as nude as other dogs. In fact, there's a photoset that takes you through the process of building this costume.

12. Death Star

Anditron always dresses up for Halloween, but when she was pregnant, she wanted to incorporate her bump without being too traditional. So she made a Death Star costume. Or rather, her round belly was the Death Star, with small x-wing fighters attached. The rest of her was dressed in black. The Darth Vader helmet was incidental, but worked well. See the result on Flickr.

13. Coppertone Girl

It's a logo everyone knows from as far back as we can remember. The little Coppertone girl's tan line is revealed when her puppy dog pulls on her swim pants. Anna at A. Party Style dressed her adorable daughter in a tan leotard and tights, then reconstructed the backside to reflect the logo, puppy dog and all!

14. Leg Lamp

You can buy a Leg Lamp Halloween costume referencing a prop from the movie A Christmas Story. But redditor mjr214 has a friend who has only one leg, which made her homemade costume so much more fitting -and awesome! You can see the comparison in this photo.

15. Walk the Dinosaur

Alison at Mod Mischief put together a dinosaur illusion costume a few years ago. She even wore stilts! The dino she is riding is an allosaurus made of papier-mâché. See some of the construction pictures in this post. Allison set the bar pretty high for herself after the kidnapped mermaid costume she posted at Instructables from the previous year.

See also: 12 Wordplay Halloween Costumes

16. Flying Genie

Allison also posted an Instructables guide to recreating this Genie on a Flying Carpet costume one of her friends pulled off. The secret to carrying this around all night is a walker on wheels that supports the carpet!

17. Zombie Cat

Cyriak Harris and Sarah Brown made an animation featuring zombie cats called Meow. Dawn Weast and Suzy Gruber were inspired by the video and made a Zombie Cat costume for Weast's 5-year-old daughter Bell. The handmade costume is a dead ringer for one of the cartoon cats that gets turned into a zombie.

18. Shark Attack

Redditor notsohipster has a young cousin who has no legs. He and his little sister trick-or-treated in these clever costumes portraying a shark and her surfboarding victim.

19. Pregnant Zombie

Pregnant Zombie

Amanda Fite was the pregnant zombie that stood out from the crowd at the 2009 Texas Frightmare Zombie Walk. Be assured, it was totally fake. A series of photos give you some idea of the work that went into this costume. See more photos from the 2009 Texas Frightmare Weekend Zombie Walk in Flickr user Ian Aberle's photo set.

20. Port-a-Potty

Sam's brother had a homemade illusion costume that set him in a Port-a-Potty in 2010. Seven-year-old Ben could walk around and "sit" at the same time! The brand name in their area is Honey Bucket, so Ben's door was labeled the same.

21. Chomping Pacman

Matthew Varas built a Pacman costume a few years ago, and this decided to improve upon the idea by building a Pacman with a Chomping Mouth! The project took six weeks, but as you can see, the results are awesome. See the building process at Make.

22. Robot Couple

Instructables member onebrokenneck made a robot couple for a costume competition. These classic Hollywood-style robots are made of aluminum, but according to the build process at Instructables, you can probably use cardboard instead if you don't have a metal shop. The arms and legs are dryer ducts, and various LED gizmos were used to give them an electric personality.

23. Halo

Shawn Thorsson has made a bunch of fantastic costumes. He planned a Halo-themed build for Halloween 2008, but then was deployed to Afghanistan. The project was finally completed the next year. Thorsson fabricated armor from the video game world of Halo, painted them in different colors, and dressed his friends as the characters from the Red vs. Blue series. He posted lots of pictures to show you the process.

24. The Birds

A few years ago, redditor CampingIsInTents posted a picture of her Tippi Hedren costume and got a rousing response. The idea references a popular movie, but you won't see other people wearing it at the same party. She bought the birds, but had to alter the wings to make them just right. The idea has been used by creative costume-makers a couple of times before, even on TV.

25. Krang

Melissa Dunphy made her husband a Krang costume for Halloween 2010. Krang is a cartoon villain who vexes the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The costume required a lot of foam rubber, repurposed electronics, and duct tape. See some still photos at Flickr.

See also: 12 Halloween Ideas From 1884's Hottest Costume Guide

26. Headless Marie Antoinette

A headless Marie Antoinette Halloween costume
A headless Marie Antoinette Halloween costume
connielim_2000, Instructables // CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Nicole Magne, who wore a gaping abdominal hole in the Death Becomes Her costume above, made an awesome Marie Antoinette getup a few years ago. Of course, it wouldn't be so awesome if she hadn't been decapitated! You can find a version of the costume (above) at Instructables.

27. 8-bit Gary

Kiel Johnson and Klai Brown created this 8-bit costume out of foam cubes glued onto a cardboard suit for a Toshiba ad in which the "real" Gary was pixelated into a low-res version of himself.

28. LEGO Minifig

Instructables member Kaged Konbat made himself into a LEGO Minifig. The head is made from a tube sold as a form for concrete -strong but still lightweight. The wearer sees through the facial features, which are covered with mesh speaker fabric. Your buddy could accompany you as a LEGO brick.

29. Darth Vader TIE Fighter

I was blown away by this Darth Vader costume spotted at Downtown Disney in Anaheim for Halloween 2007. Someone took a lot of care in constructing a TIE fighter around a wheelchair. See more Halloween costume ideas for children in wheelchairs.

30. Steampunk Iron Man

Steampunk Iron Man won the Marvel costume contest at Comic Con in 2010.

31. Double Rainbow

This costume was inspired by the double rainbow meme from Paul Vasquez's awe at seeing a double rainbow at Yosemite.

32. Mad Max

Karol Bartoszynski has been many of the characters from the Mad Max movies. He became a fan as a teenager, and over the next twenty years turned his enthusiasm for Mad Max into a career as a costume designer, and now organizes Mad Max fan gatherings and re-enactments. Bartoszynski runs the fan site Mad Max Costumes, where you can draw plenty of inspiration.

33. Reverse Trick-or-Treat

A comic describing "reverse trick or treating"
Doctor Popular, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The greatest Halloween costume idea ever was one related in this story from Mefite np312. Apparently no pictures were posted from that Halloween long ago, but Doc Pop took the idea and illustrated it in a comic. You can see the whole thing at Flickr. I hope someone picks this up and runs with it this year.

34. Umbrella Bat

Have you ever looked at a broken umbrella and thought about how it resembles a flailing bat? Lenore at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories made this Umbrella Bat costume out of one umbrella and a hoodie, and posted instructions so you can do the same.

35. Trash Can

This Trash Can costume is also a prank!

When I was a kid there was a guy in our neighborhood that used to jump out of the bushes in a gorilla suit and scare the bejeezus out of us. It was one of my fondest memories of halloween. One year I decided to be that guy.

Unfortunately, I don't have any bushes. An alternative would be to build a trash barrel disguise. I built the disguise below and then sat in it right on the front lawn. Not one single kid realized that It wasn't a trash can and I scared so many of them that I lost count.

See also: 15 Halloween Costumes From the 1970s

36. Caterpillar Power Loader J-5000

You might not recognize the name Caterpillar Power Loader J-5000, but surely you remember the mechanical power suit Sigourney Weaver used to fight the alien queen in Aliens. Ben Hallert built this one for Halloween in 2006. Read his story with links to photos and a video. Hallert previously made an APU costume from The Matrix, and a Mech Warrior costume.

37. Rubik's Cube

A man dressed up in a Rubik's Cube Halloween costume
Fred Benenson, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Flickr user mcredis built a Rubik's Cube costume and posted the process in photographs. He wore it to a costume parade in New York, and heard "Can I solve you?"all night long.

38. Flaming Carrot

The Flaming Carrot is one of the more bizarre comic book characters you'll ever encounter, but it's the look that makes a great costume, rather than the backstory. RoG posted details on how he contructed this one.

39. Tron Guy

Jay Maynard, the Tron Guy, became an internet legend for this costume.

40. Ghostbusters

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Honus at Instructables posted instructions for making your own, complete with goggles and weapons. The backpack really makes this; I hope it isn't as heavy as it looks!

41. Big Daddy

Graphic designer Harrison Krix made a costume of the character Big Daddy from the video game Bioshock. This is a work of a serious propmaster. It took seven weeks of sculpting with foam, cardboard, and fiberglass. The finished product, complete with a working drill arm, is a work of art. The post includes many more pictures and a couple of videos of the drill arm in action.

Every year, people amaze me not only with their ideas, but with their talent and dedication at bringing the best costumes to life for Halloween (and other occasions). I hope you enjoy these as much as I do!

42. Plastic Army Man

Rebekah Tennis made this costume for her son in 2011. He wanted to be an Army guy, but with a little work and a lot of green paint, he's a soldier straight out of Toy Story! She then posted the process of creating this costume.

43. Cherry Darling

comic-con2007-0919.jpg

Cameron Yee, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The character Cherry Darling from the movie Planet Terror startled folks when they saw that one of her legs was a machine gun. Then it inspired some women to recreate the scene. Now, if you are a beautiful amputee like Lacey Henderson, who gained note as a college cheerleader a few years ago, you can make hay by cosplaying the character at fan events. Henderson has a webpage with instructions for those who aren't amputees on how to recreate the Cherry Darling look, and an annual competition is held for the best machine-gun-leg costume.

44. Jack Skellington

DeviantART member Mnemousyne created this super-tall Jack Skellington costume by making a suit that fits over stilts. The head is built over a helmet, making it more stable, but still a bit hard to see from. Her sister is modeling the costume here; Mnemousyne is in the Sally costume.

45. Weeping Angel

The Weeping Angel is a scary character from the Doctor Who episode "Blink." Livejournal user penwiper337 made this costume of the Weeping Angel to wear at DragonCon. You can follow the process of building it at her blog.

See also: 10 Last-Minute Ideas for Brilliant Halloween Costumes

46. The Ginger Bread Man

The costume was created for a career day fair, but would work for Halloween for any redheads out there.

47. Dorian Gray and his Picture

Heather and David as Dorian Gray and his Picture

Jason Adams, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The party was literary-themed, so Heather and David came up with a couple's costume right out of the novel The Picture of Dorian Grey. Heather is Dorian, of course, and David is aged up and framed to be …his picture!

48. Mousetrap

Jeff from Ohio told the story of how he made this mousetrap costume for his 3-year-old daughter. Being trapped is a very good excuse for not walking house to house, but a set of wheels got her there anyway! He cut the wood and mounted it to a wagon, welded on the metal hardware, and made the back half of the mouse to work as a cushion for the child's back. Adorable!

49 & 50. Bob Ross and the Orbit Gum Lady

Jake Meek said his Bob Ross attire was purchased in the ladies department at a local thrift store, "which I can only assume is where all men's clothing from the '70s currently resides." He's posing with the Orbit Gum Lady.

51 & 52. The Hamburgler and the Sunmaid Raisins Lady

Here's that same pair, this time as The Hamburgler and the woman on the Sunmaid Raisins box.

53. The DC Metro

Longtime mental_floss contributor Scott Allen won season tickets to the Washington Wizards for this costume!

54. The Firefox Logo

You can even dress up as a browser logo. Firefox is the preferred costume, as it has recognizable features. This Firefox costume was entered in Crunchgear's contest last year.

55. Rock & Roll Witch

Or you could go as me! (Going as a rock & roll witch.)

56. Cheshire Cat

Etsy member scarystitcher made an award-winning costume for her daughter last year and posted it at reddit. She gave us the short version of how it was made. 

The gray and blue fur are two separate materials from Joanns. The gray was much longer and I had to trim all of it down, but it really was the best match for Cheshire. I used a pattern to make the body then altered it to fit her measurements. The blue stripes were cut, placed, pinned and hand-stitched one by one. The mask has a paper mâché base with upholstery foam to widen his face. The eyes are lenses from a pair of sunglasses that I painted w/ just turquoise acrylic paint. The blacks of the eyes are what she sees through. Narrow, but it works well enough. The mouth and nose are thick card-stock also painted and attached with a glue gun and the whiskers are actually twigs I spray painted and glued in under the fur. Took about a month to make but probably would've been less if I didn't have FT work + FT school

57. Darla

Darla is the bratty dentist’s niece in the movie Finding Nemo. The bag is crucial for this costume, otherwise people would assume she’s just an orthodontically challenged kid. But with the bag, it’s perfect! Redditor jarrettbraun posted a picture of redditor neuhani’s clever Halloween costume from last year. 

58. Hannibal Lecter

Andy Pixel made himself into Hannibal Lecter last year. You might think this costume would be difficult with cars, stairs, or the restroom, but he thought about that ahead of time. The hand cart comes apart, so he can ditch it and the extra legs when needed, and still be left with a full costume. He’s not really in a straitjacket; crossed arms just give him the look.

59. The Very Hungry Caterpillar

Alanna George made this Very Hungry Caterpillar costume for just a couple of dollars, and it looks just like the caterpillar in the book! Her then-2-year-old son was delighted to be the character from his favorite story. It's just one of many literary costumes that put kids in their favorite books that you can see in this bigger list

60. The Governor and His Daughter

Fans of the TV show The Walking Dead will recognize the Governor and his undead daughter. Redditor TriforceKing and his sister wore this last Halloween. It helped that he already resembled the actor David Morrissey somewhat. A few people pointed out that the Governor didn’t lose his eye until after his daughter was gone, but who cares? It’s Halloween!

61. Baby Can't Wait

It’s not really a new picture, but this photo was posted just last week showing a baby who can’t wait until he’s born to go trick-or-treating. Redditor Ghost0_ told us how he and his wife used that idea for Halloween a couple of years ago, and what went into making it. You don’t really have to be pregnant to pull this off, but it’s funnier to people who know you if you are.  

62. Man Being Carried Illusion

QuaziLogical made a classic illusion costume a couple of years ago. It cost him about $30 and took about 30 hours of work. This version of the trick looks better than most because the “dummy” is covered by a surgical mask, obscuring its fakery, and QuaziLogical wore a mask, too, to make his face look artificial. See a closer image of the legs he made.

63. Snow Globe

jpotisch via Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Flickr user jpotisch made this snow globe costume by hand! The globe is fashioned from clear acetate, and the snow is made from bits of foam hanging by thread. He posted the building process in a Flickr album with some commentary along the way. He said it took about three days to build, but the finished product is a work of art! He also made the banana costume his son is wearing in the background—and it has a photo tutorial, too. 

64. Major Toht

Few will ever forget the climactic scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Ark is opened up and Gestapo agent Arnold Toht's face is melted off. Comic book artist Cameron Stewart recreated that look for Halloween one year, at the last moment

I made the Major Toht costume in a single afternoon. I woke up that morning thinking I was going to skip Halloween (too much work in my day job as a comic artist) but all of my friends flipped out and pressured me into it. I managed to scrape all of the props together by chance. The melty face is a Captain America movie Red Skull mask with flesh-coloured paint dribbled over it.

Stewart is a master of movie costumes, as you can see in an imgur gallery featuring Toht, Jack Torrance, Patrick Bateman, and other characters.

65. Captain Hook

Here’s one trick-or-treater that takes the classic pirate costume to the next level. This toddler is Captain Hook being eaten by the crocodile from Peter Pan! Instructables member Rachael K explains how she made the costume, which won the Judges Prize for Sewing in the Instructables Halloween Costume Contest last year.

66. Mad Max

Ben Carpenter is a cosplayer who uses a wheelchair. For this year’s Tampa Bay Comic Con, he and his group became the cast of Mad Max: Fury Road. Ben was Max in the scene where he was strapped to the front of a vehicle in order to supply blood to the driver. He used his wheelchair in the upright position for the vehicle, driven by a friend and accompanied by other characters from the movie. They won the award for Best Group Cosplay. Of course they did.

67. Taco Belle

Olivia Mears is a cosplayer and costumer extraordinaire. Her Taco Belle dress decorations are made from card stock, tissue paper, felt, and Taco Bell wrappers. The inspiration came from a previous costume event, when she went for some fast food and contemplated the inadvertent pun.

See More:

11 Additional Pun-tastic Halloween Costumes

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.”

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