President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy standing in front of Christmas tree (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/Robert Knudsen)
President John F. Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy pose for a photo with a Christmas tree December 13, 1961, in the Blue Room of the White House. (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/Robert Knudsen)

Christmas at the White House holds traditions special to members of the first family who live there and to the tens of thousands of guests who visit the Executive Mansion during the holiday season.

The first lady plays a critical role in the behind-the-scenes Christmas preparations, including selecting that year’s overall theme and decorations.

Before the 20th century, first families decorated the house modestly with greens and celebrated privately with family and friends, according to the White House Historical Association, which tracks the themes and images of past Christmases.

Today, planning Christmas at the White House takes a year but only five days to execute. The goal is to “capture a sense of the American spirit,” former White House florist Laura Dowling explained. The White House expects to welcome approximately 50,000 visitors during the 2022 holiday season.

Here’s a look back at some of the traditions and decor first ladies brought to the White House.

President Dwight Eisenhower and family walking past Christmas decorations (© Corbis/Getty Images)
President Dwight Eisenhower and Mamie Eisenhower gather with family members at the White House on Christmas Day 1957. (© Corbis/Getty Images)

First lady Mamie Eisenhower was not the “first” first lady to decorate the White House for Christmas, but she took it to a whole new level, adding Christmas trees, poinsettias, wreaths and holly throughout the home.

In 1961, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of selecting a theme for the official White House Christmas tree. She decorated a tree placed in the Blue Room with ornamental toys, birds and angels modeled after Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet.

Pat Nixon standing next to gingerbread house (© Magite Historic/Alamy)
Pat Nixon with the White House gingerbread house in 1972. (© Magite Historic/Alamy)

The tradition of displaying a gingerbread house in the White House at Christmas began in 1972 with first lady Patricia Nixon. The first gingerbread house weighed in at 18 kilograms, including nearly 3 kilograms of icing to hold the confection together.

Nancy Reagan standing on ladder while decorating Christmas tree (National Archives)
First lady Nancy Reagan decorates the White House Christmas Tree December 10, 1982, with members of Second Genesis. (National Archives)

In 1982, first lady Nancy Reagan arranged for groups of teenagers involved in Second Genesis, a drug treatment program in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, to make foil paper cones and metallic snowflakes for the tree.

First lady Barbara Bush standing next to Christmas tree (© Dennis Cook/AP Images)
First lady Barbara Bush shows off the White House Christmas tree in the Blue Room December 12, 1989, in Washington. (© Dennis Cook/AP Images)

First lady Barbara Bush chose children’s literacy as the theme for the 1989 Christmas tree. It included 80 soft-sculpture characters from popular storybooks. She championed literacy throughout her husband’s tenure and after.

First lady Hillary Clinton smiling in front of gingerbread house (© Luc Novovitch/Reuters)
The White House chef surprised first lady Hillary Clinton in 1995 with a gingerbread house that replicated her childhood home in the Chicago suburbs. (© Luc Novovitch/Reuters)

In 1993, first lady Hillary Clinton invited artisans to make ornaments from fiber, ceramics, glass, metal and wood to showcase the “Year of the American Craft.” In 1995, students made nearly 3,500 ornaments related to the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, which begins, “‘Twas the night before Christmas …”

First lady Michelle Obama greeting children (© Charles Dharapak/AP Images)
First lady Michelle Obama and White House pastry chef Bill Yosses, left, join children from military families as they decorate cookies in 2011. (© Charles Dharapak/AP Images)

For their first Christmas in the White House, first lady Michelle Obama asked 60 community groups to “Reflect, Rejoice, Renew” and redecorate 800 ornaments from previous White House administrations.

First lady Melania Trump watching ballet dancers perform (© Carolyn Kaster/AP Images)
First lady Melania Trump watches ballerinas perform a piece from “The Nutcracker” among the 2017 White House holiday decorations. (© Carolyn Kaster/AP Images)

First lady Melania Trump in 2017 honored 200 years of holiday traditions at the White House. That included using President Ronald Reagan’s china and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1866 edition of A Christmas Carol.

First lady Jill Biden waving in front of large tree in horse-drawn wagon (© Alex Wong/Getty Images)
First lady Jill Biden receives the official White House Christmas Tree on the North Portico of the White House in 2021. (© Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Jill Biden has continued the tradition that began in 1966 of the first lady inspecting the official indoor White House Christmas tree as it arrived at the North Portico via horse and carriage. Each year, U.S. growers select the tree as part of a national tree contest. The 2021 tree came from North Carolina.