Eleanor Roosevelt and her love of Christmas

The Roosevelt family at Christmas

Eleanor Roosevelt with her daughter Anna and grandchildren

There are many facts about Eleanor Roosevelt that everyone knows. She was our longest serving First Lady, a UN diplomat, a Civil Rights activist, a writer, and a champion for all people in need everywhere. But one fact that we might not consider when thinking of Eleanor Roosevelt is that she loved Christmas! This time of year and its traditions were very important to the Roosevelt family who devoted their lives to serving the country. They could have understandably taken this brief time to surround themselves with family and loved ones and not focus on the needs of others but for Eleanor Roosevelt that would simply not do.

Eleanor wrote 27 books, over 500 articles, and over 7000 of her daily column, My Day. She also wrote about how a typical Christmas was spent with her family in her Christmas Book. It becomes clear in her writings that before the Roosevelts were in Washington, Christmas was quite normal and almost always spent at Hyde Park. Today, being Christmas Eve, Eleanor, Franklin, and his Mother Sara would hold a party for all of the staff of the Hyde Park estate and their families. Sara would hand out envelopes with checks while the eldest children would distribute gifts to the staff and their children. There were cornucopias filled with candies and candy canes on the tree which the staff could take home. The staff dining room was filled with cake and ice cream for them to enjoy before heading home. Once the guests had gone, Franklin would read from A Christmas Carol for a while to the younger members of the family.

On Christmas morning, Eleanor admitted that it was almost impossible to get FDR to go to church. He had never really liked the idea of getting up early for church so she decided not to fight over the matter and would attend the midnight service on Christmas Eve, usually alone. Christmas morning all of the children and FDR would go sledding down the hill just behind the house after breakfast. They would stay out until lunch time and after lunch open presents from under the tree. The stockings were generally filled with things Eleanor considered useful like new toothbrushes, washcloths, and soap. In Eleanor’s younger years she made many of the gifts she gave. She enjoyed knitting and embroidering but as the years went on and life became more hectic she admitted to buying many more gifts than they had in the past.
When the Roosevelts made it to the White House in 1933, they found it harder to get home to Hyde Park. In fact, of the 12 Christmases they had while serving, only the last two, 1943 and 1944 were spent at home. Eleanor knew her priorities as First Lady even on Christmas

“When Christmas is spent outside one’s own home, particularly in government surroundings such as the White House, you divide your Christmas in two parts. One covers your official obligations; the other, as far as possible, is the preservation of the home atmosphere and the home routine.”

On Christmas Eve, Eleanor had to attend parties for various charities like The Volunteers of America, and The Salvation Army. Then it was back to the White House for the tree lighting and a party in the East Room for the White House Staff. By the time the Roosevelts were in Washington there were now Grandchildren added to the mix so Christmas morning in the White house was filled with little children wanting to see their grandparents and dig through their stockings for gifts. By the afternoon, Eleanor was out in the slums of Washington where she visited the Alleys to see the Christmas trees and wish the people well but,

“I always went back to the White House with an added awareness of the inequality of our earthly blessings.”

As FDR’s time in office dragged on, a war began and that would inevitably alter Christmas times of the past. The sons all went off to war; dignitaries like Churchill became Christmas guests instead of family. Eleanor was becoming more aware the pain and terror of war torn and occupied nations that could no longer feel the joys of Christmas. She even felt the need to write a Christmas story about a fictional family in occupied Holland who refused to give up their faith in a scary and miserable world. A little Dutch girl and her mother have lost their husband and father to war, the little girl also learns that St. Nicholas will not be coming to their home. The little girl is even confronted by a Nazi who tells her that it is foolish to believe in the legend of Christ. But she refuses to let power and cruelty alter her beliefs. Eleanor Roosevelt’s Christmas 1940 will most likely never be a classic story to sit around the fire and read to the kids on Christmas Eve. However, Eleanor’s idea of never letting go of one’s faith and trying to keep tradition alive can still hold true no matter the time or circumstance.

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  • Blog Author

    Shannon Butler

    Shannon Butler is a Park Ranger of Interpretation and Education at Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Site in Hyde Park New York. She has also interpreted the Senate House State Historic Site in Kingston New York. Read Full
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