The White House has its share of annual holiday traditions: the Easter Egg Roll, the turkey pardon and exuberant winter holiday décor. But until recently Halloween has gotten short shrift at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
It wasn’t until some time in the 1840s that Halloween traditions crossed the Atlantic and became part and parcel of autumn in America. President Grover Cleveland, born in 1937, was a member of the first generation of Americans to grow up with jack-o'-lanterns and trick-or-treating. As a child, he was reportedly a Halloween prankster of the highest order, but sadly he didn’t bring his bag of tricks to the White House.
In the 1860s, the White House hosted a series of séances — but they weren't Halloween-related. The White House Historical Association explains: In 1862, Mary Todd Lincoln, grieving over the death of her son, brought mediums to the Red Room to communicate with the ghost of the boy. By the 1870s, regular ghostly appearances were witnessed by a White House footman who claimed to have frequent contact with the spirits in residence, and tales of supernatural occurrences continued well into the 20th century. Eleanor Roosevelt’s secretary saw Lincoln’s ghost, White House employee Lillian Rogers Parks saw many an apparition, and supposedly President Harry Truman had his own eerie encounters to recount as well.
After a structural renovation in 1952, it was proclaimed that the spirits had been officially exorcized (a two-for-one special?). And ironically, it wasn’t until after the ghostly reputation had been cleansed from the building that Halloween traditions began. The Eisenhowers decked the halls with cornstalks and Halloween décor in 1958, and costumed Kennedy kids frolicked through the halls in the 1960s. The Nixons threw Halloween parties for underprivileged children, the Fords and Carters continued in the philanthropic vein by hosting charitable parties for organizations such as UNICEF. Barbara and George H.W. celebrated their first Halloween in the White House with an anti-drug youth rally.
Fast forward to the Obama administration, when the first family has taken on the holiday with gusto. Last year the president and first lady welcomed elementary school students from 17 area public schools for Halloween trick-or-treating, which was the third time the Obamas had opened the White House for the occasion. Children from the Boys and Girls Club and from military families were invited as well. Handing out homemade cookies, special M&M’s and other confections, one may wonder why the first lady — known for championing healthy eating and the fight against childhood obesity — doesn’t hand out pretzels and apples? Fortunately, she advocates for moderation and not the complete denial of fun foods. (Which is good, because we’d hate to see the White House get egged for handing out crummy treats.)
Watch the White House slip into its holiday costume — and the Obamas in action as the Halloween host and hostess with the mostess.
White House Sweet Dough Butter Cookie Recipe
And here’s a presidential treat for all of us to indulge in: The recipe from White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses for the Halloween cookies seen in the video above.
- 1 pound sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 pounds butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 eggs
- 3 pounds all-purpose flour
Mix the butter and sugar till soft and well beaten. Then add eggs, vanilla, salt and half the flour. Beat on slow speed till mixed, then add the rest of the flour and mix until incorporated. Push flat onto a cookie sheet and refrigerate overnight. Roll out to one quarter inch thick and cut out cookie shapes with cookie cutter. Bake at 350 degrees F for 14 minutes and then allow to cool.
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MNN tease photo of White House: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images