The (not so) secret history of the White House Easter Egg Roll

Once held on Capitol Hill, the White House Easter Egg Roll drew 30,000 to the president's South Lawn on Monday morning.

Charles Dharapak / AP
Children roll Easter eggs at the White House Easter Egg Roll hosted by President Obama and Michelle Obama, on Monday, April 25, on the South Lawn of the White House.

It’s a full house at the White House Easter Egg Roll. A record 30,000 people are currently tramping down the grass of the South Lawn, announced First Lady Michelle Obama on Monday morning.

“That’s pretty amazing,” Mrs. Obama said in an opening speech that got the event off and rolling, so to speak.

Besides whacking at ovoid shapes with spoons, participants are getting a chance to listen to a full day of music. Willow Smith is the headliner here, we think. There is also a stage with readings by such authors as John Lithgow. (You thought he was just an actor? Obviously you have never encountered his masterful work of literature, “Marsupial Sue Presents: The Runaway Pancake.”)

Also, there is yoga. Just saying.

But here’s a question Mrs. Obama didn’t address: Why does the White House hold this event in the first place?

Like so many things in Washington, the White House Easter Egg Roll is the result of political competition between the executive and legislative branches of the US government.

Historical sources differ as to when the practice of Easter egg rolling began in Washington. Some say Dolly Madison started the tradition, which would make sense, since she seems like someone who would have done such a thing. Others say it started under President Andrew Johnson, who is otherwise ranked as one of the worst US chief executives of all time.

But everybody agrees that back in the day, the actual rolling took place on Capitol Hill. The event grew so popular that by 1876, the landscape was getting pretty ripped up. Toddlers, you know – no respect for how expensive those tulips were.

So Congress decided it had had enough. Lawmakers passed a law forbidding the use of the Capitol grounds as a children’s playground. (Insert your own cheap joke about politicians’ activities here.)

According to a history of the event compiled during the Clinton administration, in 1878 President Rutherford B. Hayes was taking a walk on the day before Easter when some disappointed children approached him and asked whether the popular egg roll could be held somewhere else. President Hays agreed to host the event at his own place.

“That Monday, as children were being turned away from the Capitol grounds, word quickly spread to go to the White House!” says the White House history.

The event was a big success, and administrations down through the years have generally continued it. It was canceled during World Wars I and II, and remained on hold through the early 1950s, as the White House underwent extensive renovation. President Eisenhower reinstituted egg rolling in 1953. First Lady Pat Nixon introduced a costumed Easter Bunny in 1969.

Nowadays, kids get a commemorative wooden egg for participating. If your child wants one, and you don’t live in Washington or missed this year’s event, just look on eBay. There are many available for purchase.

If you'd like to participate in a future White House Easter Egg Roll, apply online. A lottery system picks the attendees.

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