A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began

Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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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