Washington Gets Into the Holiday Spirit
With Thanksgiving now firmly in the rearview mirror, the old, familiar winter routine begins in earnest. Christmas music is suddenly ubiquitous. Shopping malls and airport security lines transform into Dante’s fifth circle of hell. And Washington faces, yet again, the threat of a government shutdown.
In the absence of a deal between both chambers of Congress and the White House before midnight on December 7 – roughly 10 days from now – large portions of the federal government will lose their funding and close. Though this is not the first funding stare down of the Trump era – January saw the federal government shut down for about two days – it does represent perhaps the Trump-era environment most ripe for both parties to hold their ground.
The president is insisting that funding for a border wall be included in any government funding bill. With the GOP retaining both chambers of Congress for the next month, the current environment could represent the most likely political atmosphere for the president to make good on this central campaign pledge. For the Democrats, who will take control of the House of Representatives on January 3, there is little incentive to lend any support this tenet of the president’s agenda. For their part, Democratic leaders are holding firm that, to secure any of their members’ votes, a spending bill must include language that would protect from political interference the special counsel’s investigation into potential links between the Trump campaign and Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
This standoff is likely why President Trump remarked earlier this month, “I think probably, if I was ever going to do a shutdown over border security…this would be a very good time to do a shutdown.”
There will be much more to discuss on this issue in the coming days. But as we continue to come down off of our tryptophan highs and, in honor of the holiday spirit, let’s look this week at how Washington celebrates the holidays when it’s not occupied with spending fights.
The events start not with Thanksgiving but with Halloween. Mamie Eisenhower was the first White House occupant to decorate the presidential mansion for the occasion and President Jimmy Carter held a 10th birthday pumpkin carving celebration for his daughter Amy in 1977. George H.W. and Barbara Bush not only welcomed trick-or-treaters, but also invited Willard Scott for an official party.
In November, the sitting president pardons a Thanksgiving turkey, or sometimes two. (This year the birds were named Peas and Carrots.) While the origin of this particular tradition is debated among presidential historians, America’s commanders in chief have had a long history with turkeys.
President Abraham Lincoln allowed his son Tad to keep a holiday bird for a pet, but that piece of poultry was meant for Christmas, not Thanksgiving. From 1873 to 1913, Rhode Island poultry farmer Harold Vose sent a turkey to the White House every year for the presidents’ Thanksgiving feasts. These birds didn’t fare as well as Tad’s. According to The Washington Post, they were “delivered dead, dressed and ready to be roasted ...” It wasn’t until 1947 that the National Turkey Foundation began sending live poultry to the White House. President Harry Truman used the first bird for his dinner.
President John F. Kennedy kept a few turkeys from making it to the dinner table, but his successor Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t. Richard Nixon sent the birds to a petting zoo, but the first pardon wasn’t issued until long after Watergate when another controversy – the Iran contra scandal – hit the Beltway. As The Post explains, “Ronald Reagan was the first president to use the word ‘pardon’ at the annual turkey presentation. But he was joking after reporters asked whether he planned to pardon aides Oliver North and Robert Poindexter … Reagan gestured at Charlie the turkey and quipped, ‘Maybe I’ll pardon him.’”
It was President George H.W. Bush who made the pardoning an annual event in the Rose Garden, held before the White House press pool.
The origins of the annual White House Christmas tree lighting are much clearer.
In 1923, First Lady Grace Coolidge allowed the District of Columbia Public Schools to place a Christmas tree on the Ellipse, south of the White House between the building and the Washington Monument. Her husband pushed the button to illuminate the tree with spectators watching, and a tradition was born. (Incidentally, electricity was first installed in the White House in 1891. Neither President Benjamin Harrison nor his wife would operate the light switches for fear of being shocked.)
Hanukkah wasn’t publicly celebrated at the White House until 2001. On Dec. 10 of that year, President George W. Bush invited members of his staff and their children to light the menorah. In remarks, President Bush said the event was a symbol that the White House is “the people’s house” and that it “belongs to people of all faiths.”
The president also hosts several invitation-only holiday parties. Members of Congress, their spouses, and families often are invited to these celebrations. Will a little eggnog and a bit of holiday cheer be enough to avoid a shutdown? Bah, humbug!