If You Ask Me by Eleanor Roosevelt

If You Ask Me
by Eleanor Roosevelt

December 1959


I am sure everyone would love to know just what the Christmases were like while you lived in the White House.

When Christmas is spent outside one's own home, particularly in government surroundings such as the White House, you divide your Christmas in two parts. One covers your official obligations; the other, as far as possible, is the preservation of the home atmosphere and the home routine.

In Washington, ceremonies began on Christmas Eve. Franklin and I would greet our office people as they left, shaking hands with each one and wishing him a Merry Christmas. Franklin would give each one some small remembrance. This little ceremony might take place on Christmas Eve—or a day earlier if the holiday fell on a weekend—and usually was held between twelve and one o'clock in the afternoon.

If it was Christmas Eve, my day had begun much earlier, with an appearance between nine and ten at one of the Washington theaters, where I gave out Christmas stockings to children gathered together by some civic groups. My next stop would be at the Volunteers of America, where baskets were being distributed to the needy, and I would give out a few of these and listen to some speeches and singing.

If the office party was at twelve o'clock, I had to hurry to get back to the White House and stand by the President during the reception. Then, immediately after lunch, there would be a Salvation Army party. After that, all of us, including the President, would get into White House cars and go to the municipal tree-lighting ceremony, which was impressive, with lovely music. Then back to the White House, and at five o'clock, the President and I, his mother when she was alive, and any of the children who happened to be with us would receive the whole White House staff, with their families, in the East Room. Here, a handsome tree was set up in the east window, between the portraits of George and Martha Washington. It was always decorated completely in white and silver, and when the lights were lit, the toys for the children scattered under the tree, and the tables fanning out on either side laden with the older people's gifts, the scene was festive and beautiful.

Any distinguished guests who were visiting with us joined in the receiving line, and that, I think, added interest for the staff, because they so often worked without getting much chance to see the famous guests whom they served.

After the party for the staff in the East Room, the little children had their supper while the big children decorated the family tree on the second floor. My husband would often start to read A Christmas Carol and would finish after dinner. Later in the evening, I always filled the Christmas stockings, which were hung in my husband's bedroom, and then attended church services, beginning at eleven-thirty. Getting to bed was a late affair, for every stocking had to be replaced exactly where each child or grandchild had hung it up.

In the morning, I got up early, closed the windows to warm the rooms, and dressed sufficiently to be presentable when the first grandchild would demand to go into "Papa's" room, as they called their grandfather. Then the littlest ones, sitting on his bed, would always empty their stockings. His own stocking would lie beside him—unopened, as a rule. My mother-in-law, if she was with us, had a stocking, and some of the children would get together with Franklin and fill one for me. I am afraid my interest was never as great in what I would find in my stocking as it was in what the various children sitting around on the floor would discover. My own children, most of them grown by this time, used to tease me about their stockings and say I took this opportunity to see that they were all equipped for cleanliness. Toothbrushes, soap, nail files were always somewhere in their stockings, and they took this laughingly. But I did try to find a few other things that might be more acceptable and interesting!

During the stocking opening, orange juice was brought in for everybody, and when the last gifts had been found in the toes of the stockings, we would all have breakfast in the West Hall of the White House, leaving Franklin to a little peace and his breakfast on a tray, with the usual array of newspapers.

Our own Christmas tree in the second corridor was not lighted until late in the afternoon of Christmas Day, because we went to church in the morning, and then there was lunch, and, for the President, work.

Christmas afternoon, I always made the rounds of Christmas trees in the Alleys. The Alleys were some of the slums of Washington, and a group would set up sad little trees, around which children would gather for presents. It would be arranged that I would drop in on each little group as they collected. From these gatherings, I always went back to the White House with an added awareness of the inequality of our earthly blessings.

It was after five before our own Christmas-tree party began. We nearly always had as guests some friends as well as such family as could be mustered, and I would arrange piles of presents on chairs or even on the floor, always leaving some toys under the tree and handing these to Franklin to give to the children.

Franklin would get so interested in everyone else's presents that it might be four or five days after Christmas before we finally enticed him to open all his own gifts. Being an orderly person, I would always get mine opened before I went to bed, so I could prepare the list for thanking as soon as possible and get everything put away. But my husband was never troubled by any considerations of this kind and would often read a book he received all the way through before he opened the next present! Nice men, I think, often have the traits of little boys all their lives, and this trait of enjoying presents I always noticed in my husband. You could not hurry him when he had a gift to enjoy.

Christmas dinner always meant gathering together any of our family who lived in Washington. We had a number of relatives there, and we also invited certain friends.

After dinner, we usually had a movie, and then everyone went home, with the feeling that Christmas had been well celebrated. If it was possible, we would slip off the next day to Hyde Park for a few days.

I remember especially the Christmas that Mr. Churchill was with us after we were involved in World War II. After that year, the Christmases weren't so cheerful. My mother-in-law died in the autumn before that first war Christmas. The boys all went off to different war theaters. Their absence meant that we did what we could to cheer their families if they were with us, or we tried to get in touch with them by telephone if they were far away. We did more in those years for foreign people cut off from their homelands by war, but it was no longer the old-time Christmas and never was to be again.

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About this document

If You Ask Me, December 1959

Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962
[ ERPP bio | VIAF | WorldCat | DPLA | SNAC ]

McCall's, volume 87, December 1959

Digital edition created by The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project

Digital edition published 2014, 2016 by
The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project
The George Washington University
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