How the McKinleys Spent Christmas

President and Mrs. McKinley celebrated four Christmases in the White House. Their first daughter, Katherine “Katie” was born on Christmas day in 1871. However, tragically, little Katie died at the age of three and a half in 1875. In 1899, the President confided to his Secretary, George B. Cortelyou that he felt especially sad at the end of every year, because Katie “was a Christmas present born on that day. One should feel holy at this season that the time should be one of resolution and reflection; the spirit of self-sacrifice should dominate everything.”[1] However, the McKinleys went on as best they could with their Christmas celebrations.

Little information is available about the McKinley’s first Christmas at the White House, 1897. Matters of both a personal and national nature no doubt led to a quiet celebration. The nation was becoming more acutely aware of events transpiring in the quest for Cuban independence from Spain, with newspapers publishing articles meant to put pressure on the President to send troops to assist Cuba. McKinley, ever the thoughtful diplomat, delayed sending troops until he knew they were ready for battle. Additionally, the President suffered a personal loss with the death of his mother, Nancy Allison McKinley at the age of eighty-eight on December 12.[2] While it is unknown what gift the President received from his wife that year, the President gave Mrs. McKinley a pair of diamond-studded combs.[3]

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Nancy Allison McKinley, also known as “Mother McKinley”

According to the White House Historical Society:

Christmas celebrations at the White House during the McKinley years were quiet gatherings that usually centered around a turkey dinner with the president’s brother, Abner, and his wife Anna, and on occasion with favorite nieces, Grace McKinley and Sarah Duncan. There was little merry-making because of the absence of young children and Mrs. McKinley’s poor health. The McKinleys, admired and popular with the American people, received a stream of parcels, gift baskets, and flowers every Christmas. Once the gifts were unloaded from the wagons rolling up to the North Door of the White House, the president’s secretary, George Cortelyou, had them unwrapped. Useful gifts were distributed to the staff. Gifts of liquor or of great intrinsic value were returned immediately and perishables were dumped. The White House staff always received personal gifts from the first lady and plump turkeys were distributed to the married men. On Christmas day the president’s schedule usually allowed him more time with his wife and they would enjoy a carriage drive through the city parks where they could be alone together out in the crisp winter air.[4]

The President and Mrs. McKinley enjoyed a more festive holiday in 1898 in the White House. The manner in which the First Family celebrated Christmas was mostly dictated by Mrs. McKinley’s health at the time. This was the second year of President McKinley’s first term, and he and the First Lady decided to spend the holidays at home in the White House. Just prior to Christmas, Mrs. McKinley was feeling strong enough to make a special trip to New York to purchase gifts for the White House servants and attachés.[5] According to Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Ida was about to go out to do her own shopping in the city’s stores, until the Major (McKinley’s nickname) called to warn her about the thirty-degree temperature. Mrs. McKinley asked the stores to send samples of clothes, jewelry, and other small items to her suite at the Windsor Hotel. Mrs. McKinley had a lunch that included a “carnation ice cream,” made with edible carnation petals, followed by a visit from a group of children who lived in the hotel. Ida came to life at this party, sitting the children on her lap, telling them stories, and showing them the photo of the President. As the children left, Mrs. McKinley said, “I wish I could call you my own.”[6] On December 8 the President cut Ida’s trip short when he called her and asked her to come home the very next day so that she could be part of the signing of the treaty with Spain which ended the Spanish-American War. She quickly packed her things and chose whatever gifts she could from among those on display in her suite.[7]

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December 10, 1898. Signing the treaty with Spain, formally ending the Spanish-American War.[8]

Several of the executive couple’s friends and associates from Ohio arrived to spend Christmas in Washington. When attending church services, their minister spoke of God’s Christmas gift of freedom to an oppressed people. Later in the afternoon the couple took advantage of the pleasant but brisk weather they were experiencing and went for a drive. While it is unknown what Mrs. McKinley gave to her husband, Mr. McKinley presented his wife with two diamond bracelets.[9]

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An article from the New York Times dated December 25, 1898, in which we learn that President McKinley had a rather mundane Christmas celebration that year.[10]

The President and First Lady received many gifts for Christmas 1899, including the fattest and juiciest turkey from Rhode Island, sent compliments of the farmer. The President and First Lady celebrated Christmas more quietly that year, as Mrs. McKinley was quite ill. The McKinley’s nieces came to the White House, along with a few other family members. Due to her illness, Mrs. McKinley could not travel in 1899 to purchase gifts. She instead made unique, thoughtful gifts for all the unmarried attaches. As was customary, all married staff members received a turkey during the holidays.[11]

Mr. McKinley worried about what special gift to give Mrs. McKinley. Historian Joshua Kendall reported that in the middle of a December 20, 1899 meeting with his Presidential Secretary George Cortelyou, Mr. McKinley suddenly blurted out “I don’t know what in the world to give Mrs. McKinley for Christmas. She has about everything she needs.”[12] This surprised the ever-reserved Cortelyou. As the meeting drew to a close several hours later, the President again added “I wish someone would tell me what to give Mrs. McKinley.”[13] Then, having just been at Galt’s silver and gift shop, the White House steward saved the day, suggesting something he saw. McKinley brightened and sent him back to buy the item for him – which he did, delivering it to the President. And in the diamond-studded small blue picture frame, McKinley placed a picture of Katie, and Ida McKinley brightened with the greatest possible Christmas gift she could get.[14]

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The President’s gift to his wife, Christmas 1899.

Feeling better than she had in months, on New Year’s 1900, Ida broke her rule of not shaking hands and greeted 3000 guests at a New Year’s Day reception.[15]

The McKinleys’ final Christmas in the White House was in December 1900. It began with the celebration of Centennial Day. The celebration, honoring the first occupancy of the White House by John Adams, occurred on December 12, 1900. The festivities included a great reception at the White House, a parade to the Capitol, and observances by both houses of Congress. According to the White House Historical Association:

A centerpiece of the White House reception was a large plaster model of a plan developed in 1900 by Army engineer Colonel Theodore Bingham, superintendent of public buildings and grounds, to expand the White House. The model revealed plans to replace the crowded working spaces with new offices, public and entertaining spaces, and press rooms by constructing massive, flanking two-story cylindrical wings with domes and lanterns patterned after those at the Library of Congress. Bingham set up his model in the East Room and, after the president viewed the display and greeted the guests, rose to present a history of the White House that evolved into a sales pitch for the expansion. Roundly criticized by the architectural profession, the project stalled and after President McKinley’s assassination awaited a new chief executive’s decision.[16]

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The 1900 model for an expansion of the White House under the direction of Colonel Theodore Bingham, commissioner of public buildings.[17]This model is now housed in the National Archives.

While the decision to expand the White House was placed on permanent stand-by, the McKinleys hosted an open house on New Year’s Day 1901. More than five thousand four hundred callers greeted McKinley, who stood next to Ida. Seated in her chair, Ida greeted visitors, chatted lively, and kissed children. Much has been said of the President’s ability to shake hands and move people along while also remembering their names.[18] Sadly, Christmas 1900 and New Year’s 1901 were to be the last time the McKinleys spent the holiday season in Washington, DC.

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“The 2010 White House Christmas ornament honors President William McKinley, 25th President of the United States, (1897 -1901), and celebrates the role of music in the traditions of the White House. The McKinley administration is remembered as a time when the nation moved beyond its continental boundaries to become an international power. The American people idolized McKinley during his presidency, so suddenly cut short by an assassin’s bullets six months into his second term. In celebration of the nation’s patriotic mood as the century turned, the illustrations commissioned for the President William McKinley White House ornament feature festive, colorful scenes from the annual Army Navy Reception at the White House in 1900. The front face of the Christmas ornament for 2010 depicts members of the United States Marine Band performing on the snow covered North Drive as arriving guests disembark from their carriages.”[19]

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“The reverse side of the ornament shows the band playing for President and Mrs. McKinley and their party in the flag bedecked splendor of the East Room. It was in this High Victorian East Room that the McKinleys began the era of “musicales” (receptions with music as the leading feature) at the White House, a tradition that continues to this day.”[20]

Sources:

[1] William McKinley to George B. Cortelyou. George Cortelyou papers, found in Library of Congress, https://catalog.loc.gov/vwebv/search?searchArg1=mm%2078016949&argType1=phrase&searchCode1=K010&searchType=2&combine2=and&searchArg2=&argType2=all&searchCode2=GKEY&combine3=and&searchArg3=&argType3=all&searchCode3=GKEY&location=all&place=all&type=all&language=all&recCount=10. Reprinted in Joshua Kendall, First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama. New York: Grand Central Publishing. 2016. 261.

[2] Naugatauk Daily News, “End Comes at Last.” December 13, 1897. Reprinted in Yeager, Thelma White, “McKinley, Nancy Allison – President William McKinley’s Mother – 1897.” Retrieved 12.19.2016 from http://www.pa-roots.org/data/read.php?411,409767

[3] Carl Sferrazza Anthony, “Christmas at the White House: The President’s Presents, Shopping, Giving & Getting Gifts, Part 1 of 4.” December 5, 2012. Retrieved 12.15.2016 from http://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/12/05/christmas-at-the-white-house-the-presidents-presents-shopping-giving-getting-gifts-part-1-of-4/

[4]White House Historical Association, “The Life and Presidency of William McKinley: The White House Christmas Ornament 2010 Historical Essay.” Retrieved 12.19.2016 from https://www.whitehousehistory.org/the-life-and-presidency-of-william-mckinley

[5] “White House Christmas Cards: William McKinley.” Retrieved 12.15.2016 from https://www.whitehousechristmascards.com/william-mckinley-1897-1901/william-mckinley/

[6] Carl Sferrazzza Anthony, Ida McKinley: The Turn-of-the-Century First Lady through War, Assassination, and Secret Dsiability. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press. Kindle e-book. Location 3544.

[7] Ibid. Location 3544.

[8] Home of Heroes.com. “Treaty of Paris: Text of the Treaty Ending The Spanish-American War.” Retrieved 12.20.2016 from http://www.homeofheroes.com/wallofhonor/spanish_am/18_treaty.html

[9] Joshua Kendall, First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama. New York: Grand Central Publishing. 2016. 259-260.

[10] “White House Christmas Cards: William McKinley.” Retrieved 12.15.2016 from https://www.whitehousechristmascards.com/william-mckinley-1897-1901/william-mckinley/

[11] “White House Christmas Cards: William McKinley.” Retrieved 12.15.2016 from https://www.whitehousechristmascards.com/william-mckinley-1897-1901/william-mckinley/

[12] “George Cortelyou Papers,” Library of Congress. https://catalog.loc.gov/vwebv/search?searchArg1=mm%2078016949&argType1=phrase&searchCode1=K010&searchType=2&combine2=and&searchArg2=&argType2=all&searchCode2=GKEY&combine3=and&searchArg3=&argType3=all&searchCode3=GKEY&location=all&place=all&type=all&language=all&recCount=10. Reprinted in Joshua Kendall, First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama. New York: Grand Central Publishing. 2016. 259

[13] Ibid. 259.

[14] Carl Sferrazza Anthony, “Christmas at the White House: The President’s Presents, Shopping, Giving & Getting Gifts, Part 1 of 4.” December 5, 2012. Retrieved 12.15.2016 from http://carlanthonyonline.com/2012/12/05/christmas-at-the-white-house-the-presidents-presents-shopping-giving-getting-gifts-part-1-of-4/

[15] Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Ida McKinley: The Turn-of-the-Century First Lady through War, Assassination, and Secret Disability. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2013. Kindle e-book. Location 3576

[16] White House Historical Association, “Unbuilt White Houses of the 19th Century.” Retrieved 12.19.2016 from https://www.whitehousehistory.org/unbuilt-white-houses-of-the-19th-century

[17] White House Historical Association, “1900 model for an Expansion of the White House.” Retrieved 12.19.2016 from https://www.whitehousehistory.org/photos/1900-model-for-an-expansion-of-the-white-house

[18] McElroy, Richard L. William McKinley and Our America.” Canton, Ohio: Stark County Historical Society. 151.

[19] “2010 White House Christmas Ornament: the US Marine Band.” Retrieved 12.15.2016 from http://shop.whitehousehistory.org/christmas/ornaments-3/the-2010-white-house-christmas-the-united-states-marine-band-honoring-william-mckinley-25th-president-of-the-united-states-1897-1901

 

[20] “2010 White House Christmas Ornament: the US Marine Band.” Retrieved 12.15.2016 from http://shop.whitehousehistory.org/christmas/ornaments-3/the-2010-white-house-christmas-the-united-states-marine-band-honoring-william-mckinley-25th-president-of-the-united-states-1897-1901