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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

12 Perfectly Spooky Halloween Decorations Under $25

Amazon/shopDisney
Amazon/shopDisney

Halloween is right around the corner—which means it’s officially time to bring out the jack-o'-lanterns, watch scary movies, buy your costume(s), and hang up your festive decorations. Although there are thousands of decorations to choose from, you don’t have to blow your budget while decking out your house or apartment in honor of the spooky season this year. With a little guidance, you'll find plenty of ways to create the perfect ambiance at home without going for broke. (And best of all, you can put the money you saved toward extra Halloween candy to stash away.)

From giant spiders to hanging ghosts and lawn decorations, here are a few of our favorite props under $25.

1. Halloween Pillow Covers (4-Pack); $17

ZJHAI/Amazon

These adorable Halloween-themed pillowcases make the perfect accessory for any couch, sofa, or mattress. Made with thick linen fabric, these are durable, sturdy, and designed to last for seasons to come. (Tip: To prevent the zipper from breaking, fold the pillow in half before inserting.)

Buy it: Amazon

2. Black Lace Spiderweb Fireplace Mantle; $12

Aerwo/Amazon

This versatile spiderweb prop is made with 100-percent polyester, and its knit lace spiderweb pattern adds a spooky touch to any home. Display it on your doorway, across your fireplace mantel, or atop your table. (It also makes a great backdrop for Halloween photo ops.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Statement Halloween Signs; $16

Dazonge/Amazon

These festive, statement-making banners come pre-assembled, making them incredibly easy to install. They’re also weather-resistant and washable for both outdoor and indoor use. Use tape, push-pins, or weights to prevent the signs from blowing away.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Jack Skellington and Sally Plush Dolls; $23 (Each)

Disney

Celebrate your favorite holiday with a pair of adorable Jack Skellington and Sally plush dolls from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jack stands at 28 inches tall, while Sally is a bit shorter at 21 inches. Set them up on your sofa or against the window sill for all to see.

Buy them: Disney Shop (Jack and Sally)

5. Halloween Zombie Groundbreaker; $22

Joyin/Amazon

This spooktacular zombie lawn decoration is sure to scare all of your friends, family, and neighbors alike. Made with a combination of latex, plastic, and fabric, this durable Halloween prop is sure to last for years to come.

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6. Hanging Ghost Decoration; $14

Moon Boat/Amazon

Drape this handmade, 14-foot-long hanging ghost decoration over your porch, doorway, or window. You can also hang it outdoors over a tree or a (very tall) bush. And, since it comes pre-assembled, you won’t have to waste time constructing it yourself.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Two-Piece Hanging Ghost Set; $17

GeeFuun/Amazon

This pair of ghosts adds a whimsical touch to any home. While they’re not “scary,” per se, they certainly are adorable. Display them in your front yard, on your porch, on a lamppost, or a tree. To hang, simply tie the ribbons and bend the wires, arms, and tails.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Pumpkin String Lights; $19

Eurus Home/Amazon

Not only are these solar-powered, 33-foot-long LED string lights good for the environment, they’re also incredibly easy to install (no long, tangly power cable chords necessary). Since they’re waterproof, you can use them both indoors and outdoors. Choose from eight different light settings, including twinkling, flashing, fading, and more.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Inflatable Ghost; $22

Joiedomi/Amazon

This adorable inflatable ghost (which dons a cute-as-can-be wizard hat!) features built-in LED lights and sandbags to help it stay sturdy. It also comes complete with a plug, extended cords, ground stakes, and fastened ropes. Simply plug it in and watch it magically inflate within just a few minutes.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Graveyard Tombstones; $17

meiguisha/Amazon

Turn your front lawn into a graveyard with this six-piece set. Each tombstone is made with foam and designed to add a touch of spookiness to your space. To install, insert one holder into the bottom of the tombstone, and one into the soil. You can use these indoors, as well.

Buy it: Amazon

11. 10-Piece Skeleton Set; $24

Fun Little Toys/Amazon

This skeleton set includes a skull, hands and arms, and legs and feet—plus five stakes to hold everything in place. Each “bone” and “joint” is flexible, allowing you to prop the skeleton into different frighteningly fun poses. Simply place the stakes into the bone socket and turn clockwise.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Outdoor Spider Web; $18

amenon/Amazon

This giant, ultra-stretchy spider web spans a whopping 23 feet. It also includes a 30-inch black spider, 20 pieces of fake spiders, one hook, and one nail. Its thick polyester rope—combined with the sturdy stakes—allows the spider web to stay in place all season long. Place the hook on a wall or tree, and expand the web using the stakes.

Buy it: Amazon

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17 Euphemisms for Sex From the 1800s

He's probably suggesting they engage in some amorous congress.
He's probably suggesting they engage in some amorous congress.
whitemay, iStock/Getty Images

While shoe-horning these into conversation today might prove difficult, these 17 synonyms for sex were used often enough in 19th-century England to earn a place in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a book for upper-crust Britons who had no idea what members of the lower classes were talking about.

1. Amorous Congress

To say two people were engaged in amorous congress was by far the most polite option on the list, oftentimes serving as the definition for other, less discreet synonyms.

2. Basket-Making

"Those two recently opened a basket-making shop." From a method of making children's stockings, in which knitting the heel is called basket-making.

3. Bread and Butter

As the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue puts it, this refers to one person on top of the other. "Rumor has it he found her bread and butter fashion with the neighbor."

4. Brush

"Yeah, we had a brush once." The emphasis here is on brevity; just a fling, no big deal.

5. Clicket

"They left together, so they're probably at clicket." This was originally used only for foxes, but became less specific as more and more phrases for doing it were needed. One definition from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue maintains the term’s original outdoorsy nature: “the man and woman are copulating in the ditch.”

6. Face-Making

Aside from the obvious, this also comes from "making children," because babies have faces.

7. Blanket Hornpipe

There is probably no way to use this in seriousness or discreetly, but there you have it.

8. Blow the Grounsils

"Grounsils" are foundation timbers, so to have sex on the floor.

9. Convivial Society

Similar to "amorous congress" in that this was a gentler term suitable for even the noble classes to use, even if they only whispered it.

10. Take a Flyer

"Flyers" being shoes, this is to have sex while still dressed, or “without going to bed.”

11. Green Gown

Giving a girl a green gown can only happen in the grass.

12. Lobster Kettle

A woman who sleeps with soldiers coming in at port is said to "make a lobster kettle" of herself.

13. Melting Moments

Those shared by "a fat man and woman in amorous congress."

14. Pully Hawly

A game at pully hawly is a series of affairs.

15. Riding St. George

In the story of St. George and the Dragon, the dragon reared up from the lake to tower over the saint. "Playing at St. George" or "riding St. George" casts a woman as the dragon and puts her on top.

16. A Stitch

Similar to having a brush, "making a stitch" is a casual affair.

17. Tiff

A tiff could be a minor argument or falling-out, as we know it. But in the 19th century, it was also a term for eating or drinking between meals, or in this case, a quickie.