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The Kennedy Family Christmas in the White House

In 1962, the Kennedy family Christmas in the White House was the best ever. It was also the last.

Jack and Jackie Kennedy, 1962. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

Jack and Jackie Kennedy, 1962. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

1st White House Christmas

The first White House Christmas in 1961 started out pretty well, as 32-year-old Jackie Kennedy had hit her stride as First Lady.

She visited a children’s hospital and gave small gifts to the children who wouldn’t be home for Christmas. (You can see a video of her visit here.)

Caroline Kennedy checks out the Nutcracker tree. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

Caroline Kennedy checks out the Nutcracker tree during the 1961 Kennedy family Christmas. Photo courtesy John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.

She introduced the tradition of Christmas Tree themes, replacing the tinsel and white lights of the Eisenhowers’ Silver Tree. Instead, she decorated the White House tree with ornaments from the Tchaikovsky ballet, The Nutcracker, including gingerbread cookies, tiny toys, sugarplum fairies and candy canes.

She flew down to Palm Springs for the traditional Kennedy family Christmas.

But on December 19, Joseph Kennedy suffered a massive stroke. The president missed the lighting of the National Christmas Tree to be with his father. Jackie Kennedy was grief-stricken, as she had a special close relationship with her father-in-law.

Shopping Nightmare

Then she tried to go Christmas shopping in the glamorous shops on Worth Avenue. Clint Hill, her Secret Service agent, remembered what the disaster. The First Lady had hoped to create the celebratory feeling of a normal Christmas. But the store employees were awestruck and shoppers gawked through the windows.

Hill and another Secret Service agent ran interference, parting the crowds in front of her and protecting her from the crowds behind her.

We tried to be as respectful as possible, and usually people responded positively to our requests, but every so often, we'd have to extend an arm or use our body to fend off an overzealous individual trying to reach Mrs. Kennedy.

She managed to buy a few gifts for Caroline, John and other family members. But, wrote Hill, "it was not the pleasant experience she had hoped for."

She later told him, “It seems I can’t go anywhere anymore without causing a scene…” He agreed to do some Christmas shopping for her.

Best Christmas

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Jackie Kennedy's 1963 Christmas card.

Christmas in 1962 would be the best in the White House for Jackie Kennedy, now pregnant. She had won accolades for her tasteful redecoration of the White House. The president had weathered the Cuban Missile crisis. He had paid close attention to the gift he gave her, a drawing by the French Impressionist Auguste Renoir.

She gave him a piece of scrimshaw with the presidential seal carved on it, which he would treasure. Within a year she would place it in his coffin.

Christmas shopping in New York City didn’t go any better than it had the year before. A photographer took her picture and splashed it all over the Daily News with the caption,

Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy cuts a bright figure as she leaves Carlyle Hotel to do some Christmas shopping. The First Lady said she was going to buy a gift for her father-in-law, former Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy.

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The Kennedy family Christmas in Palm Beach, 1962.

Back in Florida with the Kennedys, they were joined by Jackie Kennedy’s sister Lee Radziwell and her family. Everything went well. She took the children to Burdine’s to visit with Santa. Caroline told Santa she wanted a doll, and John said he wanted a helicopter.

The children staged a Christmas pageant that delighted the parents. On Christmas Day, the First Lady ingratiated herself with Miami’s large Latino population by going to Mass wearing a Spanish-style white lace mantilla.

Three days later, she stole the show at the Orange Bowl, where President Kennedy spoke to a crowd of 50,000 Cuban exiles welcoming the arrival of 1,113 veterans who had just been released from prison by Fidel Castro. Jackie followed her husband’s speech with remarks in Spanish.

A Sad Kennedy Family Christmas 1963

When First Lady Jackie Kennedy left for Dallas in November 1963, plans were already underway for the Kennedy family Christmas. Jack Kennedy had gone to great lengths to find her the perfect gift – a fur coverlet. He also learned French and intended to surprise her with it on Christmas Day.

She had painted two watercolors – the Journey of the Magi and an angel with a horn. Hallmark made the cards and contributed the proceeds to what would become the Kennedy Center. She and the president had signed 30 of their own cards to friends and supporters -- probably the rarest of all presidential Christmas cards. Gifts that year were going to be leather–bound collections of presidents’ inaugural speeches.

But in 1963, the Kennedy family Christmas would be spent mourning the assassinated president.

This story about the Kennedy family Christmas was updated in 2018.

 

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  1. Pingback: Dorothea Dix and Franklin Pierce: The Battle for the Mentally Ill - New England Historical Society

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