Kenneth (kensmind) wrote in potus_geeks,

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The Presidents at Christmas: Franklin Pierce and the First White House Christmas Tree

Franklin Pierce is reported to be the first President to put up a Christmas tree at the White House, according to some sources. It is said that he did so in either 1853 or in 1856, just as he was ending his term in office and that he did so for a group of Washington Sunday School children. It is difficult to find a source for this, and so this claim is disputed. Others claim that there was no White House Christmas tree until the Presidency of Benjamin Harrison. Whichever is accurate, the thought of Pierce making a contribution to Christmas Presidential history has some appeal, given the tragedy that he encountered in his life and in his presidency.

I did an internet search about this in 2012, and happened upon this story found by a teacher from South Carolina. It's a little bit sappy, and I'm sorry that I don't have an actual author to attribute the story to. I found it on the blog of teacher Becky Dingle, but the link has since been removed. I changed one detail in the story. The version I found online gave the year as 1857, but at Christmas of 1857 James Buchanan was in the White House. I believe that the correct year is 1856, according to other accounts, and that's what I've inserted into the story. Otherwise, the entire story is reprinted below behind the cut.

“A Christmas Tree for Jane”

When the handsome Franklin Pierce married the quiet, shy beauty Jane Means Appleton. He, like all young grooms before him, expected a wonderful life and family. This would never be and Franklin Pierce would be a less than memorable President because of the overwhelming burdens of tragedy that he had to carry the rest of his life resulting in alcoholism and death by cirrhosis of the liver.

He “hailed” from New Hampshire and was high spirited, out-going, friendly, and loved parties. He probably had more personal friends than any other President to date. His friends consisted of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was the first President to give his inaugural speech completely from memory (no notes or teleprompter). He was also the first “dark horse” candidate and that would be the origin of the White House tragedy.

Franklin and Jane would have three children…all boys and all three would die before they entered the White House. Their first son lived only three days, the second son…three years…but it was their last son-Benny- who gave his mother’s life meaning. She detested Washington society and begged her husband to leave his senate seat and return home with her and their last child. Eventually he did but he kept up with politics and let the Democratic Party know if he was needed to consider him.

He could never in a million years have considered a run for the presidency part of that request…but that is exactly what happened. He ran against the unpopular Winfield Scott…old Mexican War hero…and won almost unanimously. When Jane later discovered that he had not kept his promise to stay out of politics… the breach in the marriage was permanently sealed.

Then just days before the inauguration in late January 1853…the family traveled to Andover, MA for a relative’s funeral and decided to take little 11 year old Benny since they would be riding one of the most modern locomotives. Benny was so excited and stood between their seats waving a little American flag out the window.

For the first time Jane actually smiled and the whole family was enjoying the ride when suddenly, without warning, the train derailed going around a curve as it left the tracks little Benny was thrown out the window before either parent could grab him and was crushed under the weight of the train spiraling down an embankment. He was the only passenger killed in the train wreck.

Jane was inconsolable. There were no inaugural balls and Jane stayed dressed in black in her room and refused to come out. Months later her husband and doctor discovered that she had been writing letters to her dead son as if he were still alive and sending them to his prep school address where the headmaster finally brought them to the White House to show the president.

She then told her husband that she believed God had taken her youngest son so that her husband could pursue the duties of the presidency without a child’s distraction. For Franklin…this guilt was too much…he began drinking heavily. The famous Fox Sisters, spiritualists or mediums were also summoned by the First Lady to try to help her communicate orally with her dead son.

Her grief-stricken induced mental illness grew worse as the Christmas of 1856 drew near. German immigrants had begun putting up Christmas trees and it was beginning to catch on…one of Jane’s White House doctors suggested to President Pierce that maybe something like that would brighten her outlook. At that point the president was desperate to try anything.

Secretly they planned the big event. Holding their breaths they put up the tree and decorated it with the most beautiful ornaments. They then invited a Sunday School class of students about the age of Benny at the time of his death from the First Presbyterian Church to come by Christmas Eve to carol. They would then be invited in and the doors would be open to reveal the spectacular Christmas Tree display.

It took all the pleading of the President and the White House physicians to finally coax Jane out of her room and downstairs when the Sunday school class arrived. When the drawing room doors were opened to reveal the tree. The little children started clapping and shouting with glee. The President and doctors held their breath. Jane said not a word, but seemed entranced by the little angel on top of the tree. Then they saw tears roll down her eyes…but to their amazement…it was tears of joy. “It’s Benny” she exclaimed excitedly to her husband and “he’s telling me that he is fine, he is fine.” The president hugged her and they gave out refreshments and toys to the children.

It would be nice to stop here and say, “They lived happily ever after” but this would not be true. Jane would die six years after they left the White House still fighting depression in her early fifties. Franklin would drink himself to death But still, for this one moment on Christmas Eve 1856, a President of the United States and his estranged, sad wife would be given a Christmas miracle; a smile, children's voices, caroling, presents and a little angel that brought peace for one beautiful moment…a true Christmas miracle.

So until tomorrow, always appreciate the beauty of the Christmas tree, the memory of the first Christmas tree in the White House… and all the happiness the Christmas trees has brought people all over the world throughout all the ages.

Tags: benjamin harrison, christmas, first ladies, franklin pierce, james buchanan

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