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.

It’s 6:45 a.m. on Christmas morning, 1902, and Theodore Roosevelt’s children—Alice, Ted, Kermit, Ethel, Archie, and Quentin—are pounding at the president’s bedroom door. As per tradition, their stockings, which TR notes are “all bulging out with queer angles and rotundities,” are hanging above the fireplace in their parents’ room. Theodore and his wife, Edith, get up, remove the stockings, light a fire, and let the children in.

The kids eagerly unpack their stockings, and after breakfast, they open bigger presents in the library. Each child’s pile of gifts is on a separate table; among the presents are an electric railroad for Quentin, a rifle and riding boots for Archie, and a pile of books for TR and Edith.

But the day holds an even bigger surprise than the goodies the Roosevelts opened.

Sometime during the festivities, Archie turns to his father. “Just look here for a minute,” he says. “I want you to glance into this old closet.”

He presses a button and opens the closet door to reveal … a Christmas tree.

It’s clear that 8-year-old Archie has been scheming some time. First, he’d drafted a steward to buy the tiny, 2-foot-tall tree for 20 cents at the market and smuggle it into the White House. Then, with the help of the carpenter, he’d rigged it up in a closet his mother rarely used. The building’s electrician had helped him string it with lights, which can be turned on at the push of a button. Gifts for each family member—and for Jack the Dog, Tom Quartz the Kitten, and Algonquin the Pony—adorn the branches.

As Roosevelt friend Robert Lincoln O’Brien will write a year later, “All of the family were there, as was Quentin’s nurse, but none appeared more astonished than Mr. Roosevelt himself at the sight of this diminutive Christmas tree.”

You might be wondering: Why would a Christmas tree be so surprising? Well, the Roosevelts didn’t typically have a Christmas tree, because—according to legend, anyway—Theodore Roosevelt, avid conservationist, had banned them. The stories would have you believe that when Archie revealed his festive stunt, his father gave him a patented TR lecture. But what actually happened?

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this week, in honor of the upcoming Christmas holiday, we’re doing something a little different—we’re looking at the fact, and fiction, behind a pervasive Theodore Roosevelt Christmas tale. This episode is TR vs. Christmas Trees.

Theodore Roosevelt loved Christmas, which he called “an occasion of literally delirious joy.” That love began in his childhood with the efforts of his parents, Thee and Mittie, who strove to make the holiday special. According to historian Kathleen Dalton, when TR and his siblings were kids, his mother “gloried in piling the Christmas table high with toys for her children, and she loved to watch their glee on Christmas morning.”

TR recalled those days in his autobiography, writing about nabbing big stockings from the grown-ups, hanging them up the night before Christmas, and opening them the morning of on his parents’ bed. After breakfast, Thee and Mittie would throw open the doors of the drawing room, where each child had his or her presents piled on their own table. They kept up the tradition even when they were traveling; and when they spent the holiday in the city, Thee would often go to one of the charitable organizations he supported for dinner—the Newsboys’ Lodging-House, for example—and bring his kids along.

In his autobiography, TR wrote that “I never knew any one else have what seemed to me such attractive Christmases, and in the next generation I tried to reproduce them exactly for my own children.” And he did just that, repeating the stocking-breakfast-presents-on-the-table tradition year after year.

Of one Christmas morning in 1890, when TR was in D.C. serving on the Civil Service Commission, he wrote to his sister Bamie that “the children enjoyed it with the same wild rapture we ourselves felt twenty-five years ago.” In 1903, he wrote to his sister Corinne, “I wonder whether there ever can come in life a thrill of greater exaltation and rapture than that which comes to one between the ages of say six and fourteen, when the library door is thrown open and you walk in to see all the gifts, like a materialized fairy land, arrayed on your special table?”

The family loved snow around Christmas—the kids would have “all kinds of romps in the snow,” TR wrote one year, “coasting, having snow-ball fights, and doing everything—in the grounds back of the White House.” When in Long Island, they’d bundle up and take a sleigh ride to church on Christmas Eve. And there was plenty of physical activity, of course: The Roosevelts finished up their first holiday in the White House by dancing a Virginia Reel in the East Room. According to historian Edmund Morris, TR’s wild dance moves made Edith laugh until she cried. On Christmas 1902, TR and Ted took a three-hour-long horse ride, and the president played a game of single stick with some friends that left him with “a bump over one eye and a swollen wrist.” You know, typical Theodore Roosevelt stuff.

But though they had many beloved traditions surrounding the holiday, a Christmas tree wasn’t one of them. And while that seems weird to us now, Christmas was celebrated much differently in the 19th century than it is today. In a blog post for the Theodore Roosevelt Center website, Keri Youngstrand notes that, back then, “Christmas was a quiet religious holiday marked by private family traditions brought from the old world.”

As Jamie Lewis writes at The Forest Society’s history blog, up until the late 1840s, many Americans thought Christmas trees were pagan symbols, so they weren’t pervasive in homes. The same held true for the Executive Mansion: Christmas trees wouldn’t become an integral part of the holiday celebration there until the 1920s.

But what makes the Roosevelt case somewhat unusual was that, in the 19th century, Americans often did have a tree if the household had young children. Lewis writes that adults would put presents under or on the tree for the kids. Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison both had trees in the White House.

At home in Oyster Bay, the Roosevelts provided a Christmas tree—which TR cut down himself, in the woods of Sagamore Hill, with the help of an employee—to Cove Neck elementary school, where it was decorated by a teacher. Then, Roosevelt acted as Santa Claus: According to a 1920 article in the New-York Tribune, when the tree was unveiled, TR was “on hand early … his arms full with the store of mysterious packages and bundles and his eyes critically appraising the last minute decorations. … The Colonel, beaming from ear to ear, announced that he had been delegated by Saint Nick to act as his emissary, and began reading from the packages which crowded the foot of the tree the names of the various fortunate recipients.”

He even brought them his favorite hard candy from when he was a kid. In the words of his friend Jacob Riis, “Mr. Roosevelt made a good Santa Claus.”

But still, there was no tree at home.

We’ll be right back.

 

The fact that the Roosevelts, with a household full of young kids, didn’t have a tree in the White House made national news basically every year.

In 1901, The New York Daily Tribune noted that “following an established custom in the Roosevelt household, there will be no Christmas tree this year at the White House.” That same year, The Washington Times said that White House attendees were disappointed about the lack of tree, writing that, “They had supposed that, with so many children, the tree would be indispensable.” The following year, the New York Sun reported the same thing—no tree!—although, thanks to Archie’s surprise, they would be wrong. In 1903, Georgia’s The Brunswick Daily said that “following the custom of last year it has been decided to have no Christmas tree at the White House,” and in 1904—well, you get the idea.

After Archie went rogue, though, Lewis writes that the papers wondered, each holiday season for the rest of TR’s presidency, “what will happen and if Archie will pull a fast one.”

There was much speculation as to why the Roosevelts went treeless on Christmas. The Washington Times reported that the Roosevelt kids didn’t even like trees, and that TR preferred to celebrate according to the customs of Holland. (The Dutch version of Santa, or Sinterklaas, was big on leaving gifts in footwear.)

South Carolina’s Greenville News wrote in 1904 that Santa would visit the White House as he did other homes in the U.S., but he would not “furnish a Christmas tree, and the president and his wife do not bother about providing one. Whether they think Santa Claus would not like for them to do something he had failed to do cannot be officially stated.”

But as soon as 1903, another explanation had emerged: That TR opposed Christmas trees because of environmental concerns. As O’Brien wrote in Ladies’ Home Journal, “The President’s love for the living things of the forest in their own natural setting is so great, it has been suggested, that he prefers not to encourage the wanton slaughter of small trees.”

By December 1909, it was being reported as fact in the press. Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the Division of Forestry, was thrown into the tale for good measure. He supposedly “sided with Santa Claus and showed how Christmas tree cutting did the forests good in many places.”

It’s true that TR was no fan of destructive lumbering practices—after all, this is the guy who created the U.S. Forest Service and established 150 national forests. In 1905, he gave a speech titled “The Forest in the Life of a Nation” in which he noted that things like fire and destructive lumbering practices, combined with legitimate lumbering, “are destroying our forest resources far more rapidly than they are being replaced,” and that if there was nothing done to curb the destruction of forests, a timber famine would be inevitable. “Remember,” he added, “that you can prevent such a timber famine occurring by wise action taken in time, but once the famine occurs there is no possible way of hurrying the growth of the trees necessary to relieve it.”

The guy clearly loved trees. And national sentiment at the time was decidedly anti-Christmas tree. An 1899 editorial suggested that an inventor create a wire Christmas tree “Warranted to bear a gift for every member of the family and to be absolutely fireproof. As wire is durable, a large family of children could be brought up on one Christmas tree and much timber would be saved.”

According to Lewis, President McKinley got letters asking him to forgo a tree—the writers called cutting down trees for Christmas “arboreal infanticide.” And by the time TR became president, opposition to the practice had reached its peak, with the public arguing against cutting trees for reasons ranging from destructive harvesting practices to wastefulness. One paper called the trees “an absurd fad” that were resulting in “the woods … being stripped.”

In his piece for Ladies’ Home Journal, O’Brien noted that if TR disapproved of the practice on conservation grounds, “he has not so informed his closest friends.”

Lewis writes that Theodore Roosevelt never came out specifically against harvesting Christmas trees, and when he spoke with writer Brigit Katz for a Mental Floss piece on this subject, Lewis was emphatic: “Ultimately, [Roosevelt] had no ban on Christmas trees,” he told Katz.

As for why the press was so interested in the Roosevelts’ lack of tree, Lewis had an explanation for us. He said that not only were the Roosevelts “a dynamic, fascinating family that the press loved covering,” but that the papers might have been wanting for content as the holiday approached. Lewis told Katz that “Congress would have adjourned weeks before. 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.”

Still, despite the lack of evidence, TR’s supposed stance on Christmas trees, and the story about Pinchot stepping in to set him straight, are still reported as fact today. Theodore Roosevelt’s ban on Christmas trees even made it onto an episode of Drunk History.

We’ll be right back.

 

The fact of the matter is, we may never really know why the Roosevelts didn’t have a tree. Perhaps it’s because Bamie had one at her house, and the Roosevelts were there most Christmases. Or perhaps, as O’Brien wrote, it was because that the Roosevelts favored simplicity; the White House wasn’t decorated gaudily for the season, either. Or maybe, as the Baltimore Sun posited in December 1901, with so many children, and so many visitors, there wasn’t room for one—and that Bamie’s tree would just have to suffice.

Or, as Lewis told Atlas Obscura, it could be that Edith put the kibosh on a tree. After all the Roosevelts had six kids and a veritable zoo of pets—which included, at one time or another, opossums, flying squirrels and kangaroo rats, a pig named Maude, a badger named Josiah, a hyena named Bill, a one-legged rooster, guinea pigs with names like Father O’Grady and Fighting Bob Evans, and, of course, Tom Quartz the kitten, Algonquin the pony, and Jack the dog, among many, many others—to worry about.

But the most likely explanation seems to be that Roosevelt loved the Christmas traditions of his childhood, and those traditions didn’t include a tree. So there was no tree—at least not until 1902.

What we do know is that Archie’s antics that year appear to have been met with delight, not a lecture, from the president. And they may even have started a new Roosevelt family tradition: In 1906, TR wrote to Corinne that Archie and Quentin had created “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.”

While TR and Edith were admiring Archie’s tree, two kids snuck out of the room to set up “a small lighted Christmas tree” in their parents’ room. It had, TR wrote, “two huge stockings for Edith and myself.” The next year, he wrote to Bamie that “there was a Christmas tree of Archie’s.”

In his Forest Society blog, Lewis notes that the casualness of TR’s comment may suggest that by this point, a tree was actually expected—and perhaps that fact is what led the kids to provide a tree for their parents in 1906. They wanted to surprise TR once again.

Today, Archie’s exploits live on in Gary Hines’s children’s book, A Christmas Tree in the White House.

And if this episode has made you wonder whether you should go with a real tree on Christmas, it’s worth noting that, at least these days, Christmas trees are crops grown on farms. According to The New York Times, it takes under a decade for a tree to reach 5 or 6 feet, and it’s replaced with a new tree when a farmer cuts it down. Christmas tree farming practices are sustainable, and the trees do a lot for the environment before they’re cut down. And they have the potential to do more after, too, if you compost them or donate them to a zoo, where they can be used as enrichment toys or snacks for animals.

We’ll be back next week with a regular episode of History Vs. We hope you have a great holiday!

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website atmentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. Is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.