A Christmas tree farmer as president? How he raised spirits during wartime.

US presidents have had Christmas trees at the White House for years. But only one was a bona fide Christmas tree farmer, according to his voter registration card.

REUTERS/Molly Riley
The National Christmas Tree is lit in front of the White House during its lighting ceremony in Washington December 1, 2011.

Many presidents have lit a national Christmas tree outdoors on the Ellipse. They’ve also entertained guests round the bedecked White House Christmas tree inside the Executive Mansion, in the big Blue Room. 

But only one raised and sold Christmas trees himself. He even wrote “Christmas tree farmer” on the occupation line of his voter registration card. Who was it?

We’ll give you a hint – he also hosted perhaps the most sober and moving White House tree ceremony of modern times.

Give up? It was Franklin D. Roosevelt, gentleman horticulturist. He raised Christmas trees at his Hyde Park estate.

He planted the evergreens when they were six inches high. Every two years or so a hired hand would weed them. Trees that reached the age of 10 years were cut for sale. FDR’s secretary Grace Tulley would write chain stores to remind them the president had trees in stock; these outlets would buy them up.

He hoped to produce trees “in such quantity that it would be a really profitable venture,” said Ms. Tulley in historian Stanley Weintraub’s new book, “Pearl Harbor Christmas.”

Pearl Harbor was the cause of the emotional tree-lighting ceremony, of course. The Japanese surprise attack took place on Dec. 7, 1941. Within days the United States was at war with Japan and Germany. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived in Washington Dec. 22 for consultations with his new ally. He stayed at the White House, keeping FDR up late into the night for talk and cigars.

On Christmas Eve the two leaders of the free world stood on the South Portico of the White House to light the national tree. Thousands watched in person; millions listened on radio.

FDR said that at such a time, it was natural to question why Christmas trees should be lit at all. The reason, he said, was that the nation needed to armor its hearts as well as its soldiers.

“When we make ready our hearts for the labor and the suffering and the ultimate victory which lie ahead, then we observe Christmas Day – with all of its memories and all of its meanings – as we should,” said Roosevelt. The national tree was not lit again until Christmas 1945, in the wake of the Allied victory.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.