The Seeley Collection is a collection of Presidential Christmas Memorabilia that has been recognized across the nation. It has been the holiday centerpiece of ten presidential libraries and numerous other museums from coast to coast. It is one of the most extensive collections of its kind, comprised of over five hundred rare and unique items that document and detail Christmas at the White House. This Christmas Collection is the property of Ronald and Mary Seeley.
The earliest artifact is a handwritten letter in the third person by President James Madison thanking a gentleman for a gift he sent the President for Christmas 1829. Also included is Molly Garfield’s autograph book, in which the President-elect signed it on December 25, 1880. A 1921 calendar where President Wilson is reviewing the troops in France on Christmas Day was a rare find. An original hand painted and calligraphied rendition of Calvin Coolidge’s 1927 Christmas message, purchased at a garage sale, became the property of those who would know and appreciate its significance.
Favorite artifacts include a copy of a military telegram President Lincoln sent requesting the release of two Confederate “Rebel POW’S” to their families on Christmas Day, a rare Autographed Letter Signed (ALS) by President Chester Arthur expressing Christmas Greetings to his friend, Mr. Dunn of D&B, and a signed photo of then Gov. Theodore Roosevelt to the Secretary of the Military, George Curtis Tredwell December 1899. Often the stories behind the artifact are of equal significance to the collector.
A collection of early Christmas cards in America by Louis Prang designed in the 1870-80’s are included to give credence to the fact that the early Presidents did not send Christmas Cards. Prang began the production of Christmas cards in America around 1875. A reproduction of the first Christmas card by John Calcutt Horsely in England in 1843 shows a contrast of content and design from inception until the present.
Perhaps the rarest part of the Seeley Collection documents the shorten administration of John F. Kennedy. It includes two of thirty 1963 Creche cards that both President and Mrs. Kennedy signed before going to Dallas, the only 1963 Green Room Gift Print that Jacqueline Kennedy inscribed with 50 words to artist Edward Lehman in appreciation of the art he painted for them that adorned their gifts at Christmas. The collection includes one of possibly two 1964 Blue Room Paintings that Lehman had completed for what was to be the Kennedy’s 1964 Christmas gift. President Kennedy held it in his hands and said the Blue Room was his personal favorite.
Other one of a kind collectibles is a Hallmark prototype of what was to be President Nixon’s 1974 Gift Print featuring President Wilson in a velour folder. A true treasure in the collection is the original art by Thomas William Jones of the North Entry Hall that he painted for President and Mrs. Reagan’s final Christmas. Dr. Seeley purchased the art as a gift for his wife, recognizing the work she had done to preserve America’s heritage.
The Coolidges (1923-28) Beginning of a Tradition
Until 1923, holiday celebrations were local in nature. That year, the erection of a National Christmas Tree was the first of several holiday practices instituted during the Coolidge Presidency that are still with us today. On Christmas Eve, the Chief Executive walked to the darkened tree on the Ellipse and pressed the switch with his foot to illuminate its 3,000 bulbs. While radio station WCAP broadcast the event to possibly a million Americans, the President gave no speech. The evening centered, instead, on Christmas carols and other festive music by local church choirs and the U.S. Marine Band.
It was 1927 when President Coolidge issued a holiday message to the nation-and then only a brief one written by his own hand on White House stationery. Its text was carried in newspapers across the land on Christmas Day. Finally, in 1928, on his last Christmas Eve in office, the President delivered to the nation via radio the first tree-lighting speech. It was 49 words in length.
For Christmas, the First Lady often gave little gifts to the staff. Her husband was known for his tight fist and a thrift that he both practiced and preached.
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The Hoovers (1929-32) Depression, Drought and a Natural Disaster
Herbert Hoover tried to find a solution for the Great Depression throughout most of his ill-fated term in office; punctuating much of the Hoover Administration was a devastating drought that affected a large portion of the country. These economic and personal disasters resulted in a disillusioned public and an eventual political defeat for the President.
Disaster even struck Hoover's first Christmas Eve in office when a fire in the West Wing Executive Office destroyed his desk during a Presidential dinner party. The Marine Band, meanwhile, played Christmas carols at a volume calculated to drown out the sound of the arriving fire engines. In 1932, with a failed election behind him, Hoover spent his last Christmas in office cruising aboard the USS Sequoia.
Fond of old prints of Washington, and especially of the White House, the First Lady sent her secretary as far away as New York in search of specimens for her collection. The Hoovers drew from these as a source of numerous gifts to their staff. Over the years, the President's staff gifts also included many personal photographs.
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The Roosevelts (1933-45) The Twelve Years of Christmases
Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt loved Christmas: the scent of a fresh evergreen tree warmed by the fire of candles; the President's Christmas Eve ritual of reading and reciting from memory the Dickens classic Christmas Carol; the First Lady's gift buying for family friends and the hundreds of people who made their life at the White House more enjoyable.
Though half of the Christmases of the Roosevelts' 12-year tenure were seasoned by war, the holiday was always a joyous, festive, exciting family event. A year-round Christmas shopper, the First Lady maintained a Christmas Closet where she kept all the gifts she began assembling each January. To keep track of all her purchases, she kept a detailed Christmas book.
Among the most unique of the Roosevelts' gifts were the pewter items made at The Forge, a foundry established by the First Lady to create depression-era jobs for young men willing to learn the art of metal craft. With war threatening, The Forge closed, and the First Family turned to a number of other sources for gift ideas. The Roosevelt Christmas cards were enclosed with gifts. Some, most likely, were sent as greetings. With the war in Europe came increasing contact with other heads of state, and the President also sent these cards abroad.
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The Trumans (1945-52) Home for the Holidays
Harry S. Truman had been Vice President for only 83 days when news of Franklin Roosevelt's death hit Washington; the man from Missouri was elevated to the Presidency suddenly and at a crucial time in history. The Trumans moved into the White House on May 7, 1945, and the following day was both historic and memorable. Germany surrendered unconditionally to bring World War II to an end in Europe, and the President celebrated his 61st birthday. The jubilant Chief Executive announced the long-awaited surrender in a proclamation to the American people on May 8, which became known as V-E Day. Writing to his mother, he remarked, "Isn't that some birthday present?"
Clearly of modest Midwest origin, President Truman drew strength from his roots in the nation's heartland. It became a tradition for the First Family to go home to Independence, Missouri, for Christmas. The Chief Executive, however, always remained in Washington until after the staff party on Christmas Eve.
The Truman Presidential gifts were an eclectic mix of the practical, personal and patriotic. These included utilitarian items; photographs of the President and the two residences of his Presidency; and graphically embellished text prints. After two Christmases, the First Family had their holiday message embossed or printed on each gift. With a gift enclosure card being unnecessary, the practice of giving them was discontinued.
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The Eisenhowers (1953-60) Art From a Painting President
If ever a President took a personal interest in the holiday gifts and cards that emanated from the Executive Mansion, it was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Having had no formal training in painting, the President known as "Ike" allowed six of his own creations to be used as Christmas gifts to his staff during his administration.
In a letter to Joyce C. Hall, president of Hallmark Cards, he wrote: "As you know I always hate to inflict 'art' on my friends and members of my staff, but Hallmark makes such a beautiful package job that I am, and I hope others are, distracted into the belief that the whole thing is a superior product."
President Eisenhower had a unique working relationship with the president of Hallmark. In eight years, Hallmark produced a prodigious 38 different Christmas cards and gift prints for the President and First Lady. No previous administration, nor any since Eisenhower's, has sent such a variety of holiday greetings from the White House. This is only a sampling of the many Eisenhower items.
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The Kennedys (1961-1963) Art, History and Christmas
When John F. Kennedy came to the White House in 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy was astonished by its lack of tradition. There was no sense of history; no reminders of the great Americans who had lived there in the past. She decided to take on the task of making the world-famous building "a showcase of American Art and History."
With that goal in mind, she embarked on an ambitious project to restore the White House rooms to their rightful place in history and to transform the Executive Mansion into an historic museum, a repository of period furniture and art that would reflect the history of the Presidency.
Despite her husband's shortened term in office, the First Lady managed to focus the spotlight on the White House. One card and one gift print featured photographs of its exterior; inside, starting with the Red Room, Mrs. Kennedy was the first to ask an artist to do a painting for a gift print. Pleased with Edward Lehman's initial State Room work, the Kennedys had him render the Green Room for the 1963 gift print and the Blue Room for what was to have been the 1964 gift print.
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The Johnsons (1963-1968) Presidential Plantings on Parchment
The tragedy that occurred in their beloved state of Texas on November 22, 1963, changed forever the lives of Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson. One hour and 39 minutes after the death of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States.
Six Christmases passed while the Johnsons lived in the White House. While the President found himself spending ever more of his energies on a war in Vietnam that would not go away, the First Lady committed herself to the beautification of America and the planting of trees. Except for their unplanned first Christmas in the Executive Mansion, all the cards and gift prints of later years were to feature trees.
These included trees planted by Presidents, trees surrounding the South Portico, trees on the South Lawn as viewed from the South Portico, and the Blue Room Christmas tree. The artist in each case was American Greetings watercolor painter Robert Laessig, with whom the Johnsons were to have a long, productive relationship. The gift prints were reproduced on textured paper 14 by 18 inches in size; to accompany each print, the First Lady enclosed a personal message penned on parchment.
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The Nixons (1969-74) White House as Home to History
Many American paintings and sculpture pieces, nine period chandeliers, 13 period rugs, three gilded beechwood chairs from the Monroe era and several pieces of Duncan Phyfe furniture were returned to the White House collection during the Nixon years. Of the 14 First Lady original portraits that were missing when Richard and Pat Nixon moved into the Executive Mansion, seven were acquired during their administration, as well as six original portraits of former Presidents.
The White House curator noted that the 10 pieces of Monroe furniture found in the basement of the Philadelphia Museum was "the greatest retrieval of White House furniture in the history of the White House." Noted one White House historian, "The Nixon era was the greatest single period of collecting in White House history. The great collection of White House Americana today is the long shadow of Mrs. Nixon. The impulse, the idea and the energy were hers."
At Christmas, the First Lady delighted in opening the White House for candlelight tours as well as nationally televised specials. It gave her and the President great pleasure to share with the nation at Christmas the rare and authentic acquisitions for the State Rooms. An admirer of his great predecessors, the President surprised no one when it came to holiday cards and gift prints. Each card was a rendition of the White House, which, for the last three Christmases, was an historical view by a well-known artist. Each gift print, invariably, was the portrait of a great President rendered by a celebrated portrait painter.
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The Fords (1974-1976) An Old-Fashioned Christmas
Gerald and Betty Ford brought to the Executive Mansion an informality that reflected their unique style and personality. The ambiance of the Ford White House was warm and folksy, simple and low-key. Mrs. Ford described it as kind of "down-home-like." Especially at Christmas, the First Lady was able to define her independence and leave the distinctive mark of an old-fashioned Christmas on the White House, a tradition the Ford family had always enjoyed.
Nineteenth century art depicting the White House and Independence Hall in Philadelphia were the subjects of one Christmas card and one gift print. The Ford motto, however, was "A family that skis together stays together." They followed this fervently by traveling to Vail, Colorado, or another prime ski region for as many days as they could between the holidays. In keeping with that theme, all the art embellishing the Fords' remaining cards and gift prints came from the hand of one artist, George Durrie, and three of the four showed scenes of snow in peaceful country settings. The Philadelphia scene used in 1976 has a remarkable story behind it.
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The Carters (1977-1980) The President's House
President and Mrs. Carter were "Sunday painters" who appreciated American art. Jimmy Carter first became interested in art history as an education officer in the Navy. In time, he and Rosalynn studied the great masterpieces together, "not to become experts," she explained, "but for enjoyment."
When they took up residence in the White House, the Carters realized their marvelous opportunity to surround themselves not only with the furniture of former Presidents but also with great works of art. The task of selecting art for their personal residence was one Mrs. Carter compared to Christmas. "Here were all these great paintings and you could pick any you wanted," she said.
During the Carter Administration a great many pieces were added to the White House collection, 150 of which were acquired on loan. To share their love of art and the honor of living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Carters' Christmas card each year while there presented a painting of the President's House.
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The Reagans (1981-1988) Years of Young Artists
Christmas in Illinois, where both Ronald and Nancy Reagan grew up, was a sharp contrast to their Christmases in Washington. The President has recalled that his family never had a really fancy Christmas. During the Depression, when they couldn't afford a Christmas tree, his mother would decorate a table or make a cardboard fireplace out of a packing box. The First Lady had fond childhood memories of her family's old-fashioned tree decorated with all the ornaments she and her brother had made in school. Little Nancy would stay awake Christmas Eve listening for the sound of reindeer on the roof, waiting anxiously to see if she had received what she had requested in her letter to Santa.
As First Lady, Nancy Reagan was much less dependent on Santa. "Christmas at the White House was truly magical," she recalled. "The huge tree in the Blue Room was very beautiful; the trees in the East Room looked like they were standing in snow with tiny white lights on them."
To share the aura of the White House at Christmas, the Reagans decided to invite young artists to paint scenes of the Executive Mansion for their cards. During the President's first term in office, they commissioned Jamie Wyeth to paint two exterior views of the White House at Christmas; they commissioned James Steinmeyer and Mark Hampton to do non-holiday renderings of the Red Room and the Green Room, respectively. For the second term in office, they settled on one artist, Thomas William Jones, and one theme, Christmas inside the White House.
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The Bushes (1989-1992) The First Family of "Firsts"
Ever since "Poppy" Bush met Barbara Pierce at a Christmas party in December 1941, they had celebrated life together. Then, after 44 years of marriage, raising five children, losing a sixth to leukemia and moving 29 times, George and Barbara Bush relocated, with much fanfare, to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
They especially enjoyed celebrating Christmas at the White House with family and friends and the thousands of visitors who came each year to enjoy the beautiful Christmas sights and sounds with them. The First Lady added her own special touches to the holiday with her annual cherry picker ride to hang the star at the top of the National Christmas Tree, a trip she took 12 times beginning in the Reagan Administration as the wife of the Vice President.
Despite all the White House Christmas card history that had gone before, this First Family established four "firsts" in the cards they selected and sent: the first holiday card done by a White House staff artist; the first card to showcase the Oval Office; the first card to reveal the family quarters at Christmas, and the first card depicting activities on the White House lawn during the lighting of the National Christmas Tree.
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The Clintons (1993-2000) A Contemporary Christmas
Going shopping at the malls, walking around and watching people always was a big part of Christmas for Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea-but one tradition not easily carried out as a First Family of the Land. Though the Clintons were all "pretty crazy ... about celebrating Christmas," according to the First Lady, the new President's ambitious agenda for the country absorbed most of their attention. When informed that plans for the official Christmas card needed to be fully under way by May, the First Lady responded, "Being the type who's relieved if my tree is up and decorated by Christmas Eve, I was shocked to hear this."
Even though planning for mistletoe and holly began during cherry blossom time, the task of choosing the design for the first official Christmas card was to present an unexpected challenge for the new administration. When the work of two artists was not accepted, and with time running short, photographer Neal Slavin came to the White House on Veterans Day to produce "instant art" depicting the President and First Lady posed before a decorated tree in the State Dining Room.
Simultaneously, the Clintons commissioned contemporary figurative artist Thomas McKnight to do the art for the second year's card. He showed up at the White House during Christmas 1993 and took lots of photographs. His unique style was to adorn the next three official Presidential cards in his renderings of the Red Room, Blue Room and Green Room.
Artist Kay Jackson pleased the Clintons with her rendition of the White House at night for the 1997 Christmas card. The artistic style of Ray Ellis completed the Clinton’s Christmas trio with two interiors-- the State Dining Room in 1998 and the Yellow Oval Room in the Family Residence in 2000. An exterior view of the North Portico of the White House was the choice for the 1999 rendition of "An American Treasure."
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The George W. Bushes (2001-2008) Christmas in a New Kind of World
President and Mrs. George W. Bush were the first to use a scripture verse on their official Christmas card. After the September 11 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York, Mrs. Bush changed their original selection. Mrs. Bush was inspired by Psalm 27:3 “Though a host should encamp against me, My heart shall not fear; Though war shall rise against me, in this will I be confident.” Verse 8, “Thy Face, Lord do I seek:” and verse 13 were incorporated in their first card: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living.” Andrian Martinez painted the image for that 2001 card.
Except for the 2004 Christmas card of the Red Room by Texan Cindi Holt, The Bushes chose unique perspectives of White House scenes. With little direction, Mrs. Bush encouraged each artist to become inspired to create an original design. Martinez featured a painting within a painting from the second floor corridor. Zhen-Huan Lu was drawn to the beautiful antique Steinway piano. Barbara Prey painted a watercolor of the Diplomatic Reception Room. Jamie Wyeth, invited for the third time (the Reagans’ used him twice), included the Bushes pets in his third outdoor rendition of the White House.
Exterior scenes were featured on the last three Bush Christmas cards and gift prints. James Blake showed the Oval Office on a snowy day in December. David Drummond featured the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden to paint the East Colonnade in 2007. To round out their holiday images, T. Allen Lawson captured a nostalgic view of the monuments from the Truman Balcony.
In 2008, the Bushes sentiment on their final Christmas card, read: “May your heart and home be filled with the joys of the holiday season.” Scripture was taken from Matthew 5:16: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”
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The Obamas (2009 to the Present)
American Greetings created only the first official Presidential Christmas card for President and Mrs. Obama in 2009. The simple but elegant card featured a gold foil-embossed presidential seal surrounded by a gold foil-embossed wreath. The white card stock, selected by the White House, bore the words, "Season's Greetings 2009". A thin burgundy border completed the front of the card. The design is likened to the simple style used by President and Mrs. Dwight Eisenhower throughout their eight years in the White House.
The following year the Obama's opted for a photograph by Pete Souza of the North Portico of the White House on a rare snowy day in Washington. The image was a crisp contrast of black and white accented by a single light on the second floor. In 2011, they called upon designer, Mark Matuszak to create a wholly digital colorful image of the Library in the White House at Christmas. The First Family's dog, Bo, was first introduced to their Christmas Card.
In 2012, the White House conducted a contest to choose their art for the President's Christmas card. Winner, Larassa Kabel featured Bo, big as life, romping in the snow on the South Lawn. From then on, a pattern was set to include the presidential pets on the Obama's presidential cards. In 2013, the unique White House pop up card included Bo and Sunny in front of the Mansion. In 2014, Bo and Sunny were front and center of the art in the North Entry Hall.
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