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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

‘Holiday Tree’ Hooey

Q: Are the Obamas doing away with the White House “Christmas” tree and banning ornaments with religious themes?

A: The traditional Christmas tree will remain, and an e-mail claim about ornaments is unsubstantiated.


Is there any truth to the following e-mail I received today? Please advise

White House will not do Christmas

Thought you might be interested in this information from the White House. This isn’t a rumor; this is a fact.

We have a friend at church who is a very talented artist. For several years she, among many others, has painted ornaments to be hung on the various White House Christmas trees. The WH usually sends out an invitation to send an ornament and informs the artists of the theme for the year.

She got her letter from the WH recently. It said that they would not be called Christmas trees this year. They will be called Holiday trees. And, to please not send any ornaments painted with a religious theme.

She was very upset at this development and sent back a reply telling them that she only painted the ornaments for Christmas trees and would not be sending any for display that left Christ out of Christmas.

Just thought you should know what the new residents in the WH plan for the future of America . If you missed his statement that “we do not consider ourselves a Christian Nation” this should confirm that he plans to take us away from our religious foundation as quickly as possible.


Update, Nov. 10, 2011: Despite our best efforts to knock down this false email claim, it has stubbornly continued to reemerge every year around the holiday season. And so we decided to revisit the issue in November, 2011, with updated information. You can read our latest report on the White House Christmas Tree here.

This e-mailed accusation has all the hallmarks of a hoax. The author isn’t identified, making it impossible to trace the source or assess his or her credibility. At best it is double hearsay, passing on something supposedly said by a second unnamed source, who is identified as little more than “a friend at church.” The church isn’t named, nor is the community or even the state in which it exists, if it does. It refers to a “letter from the WH [White House]” but doesn’t say who signed it, or when it was sent. This is just the sort of unsupported gossip that any sensible person should disregard and delete rather than spreading.

And yet it is spreading like wildfire. We have had scores of inquiries about it, and it’s now the most-asked-about item in our daily Ask FactCheck inbox.

Still a ‘Christmas’ Tree

We can quickly dismiss the false claim about a “Holiday tree.” No less an authority than the National Christmas Tree Association states that this year’s tree was chosen in August and is a Fraser fir grown by Eric and Gloria Sundback of Shepherdstown, W.Va. The news was duly reported by the Associated Press, which noted that other trees grown by the Sundbacks also had been displayed at the White House during the terms of presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. The Christmas tree association states that “the Sundbacks will present the official White House Christmas Tree to First Lady Michelle Obama for the 2009 Christmas season.”

That’s confirmed by Semonti Stephens, deputy press secretary to Mrs. Obama. “The Christmas tree will be called the Christmas tree,” she told us in an e-mail exchange.

Official White House Photo by Samantha AppletonUpdate, Nov. 30: And sure enough, the White House Christmas tree was delivered Nov. 27. As was widely reported by the Associated Press and others, First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha accepted the 18 1/2-foot Douglas fir as it arrived in a horse-drawn wagon.

This will be the tree displayed inside the White House and is not to be confused with the National Christmas Tree, which is the one the president traditionally lights up each year on the Ellipse, across the street from the White House. That one isn’t being renamed a “Holiday Tree” either, according to the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction. The park service is already putting together the National Christmas Tree Music Program to be kicked off at the lighting ceremony.

A History of Secular Ornaments

Stephens, Mrs. Obama’s spokeswoman, also denies that any letter has been sent telling artists not to send ornaments with a religious theme. “There was no such letter,” she said.

2005 White House photo by Shealah Craighead

Under Obama’s predecessor, White House holiday decorations had a different theme each year, and every one was secular, not religious. Depending on the year, the tree has been decorated with figures of birds, historic homes, musical instruments and even Little Red Riding Hood and Wilbur the pig. Furthermore, the Bush White House didn’t invite the same artists to create ornaments each year, as the e-mail message suggests.

In 2008 the theme was “A Red, White and Blue Christmas,” for example. That year, the tree was hung with 369 ornaments hand-decorated by artists who had been selected by their members of Congress. According to a fact sheet issued at the time, “Each ornament was specially designed to characterize the unique, patriotic spirit of the artist’s state, district, or territory.”

There’s been no public announcement about this year yet, and Stephens wouldn’t comment publicly on that. But the tradition of secular ornaments goes back a long way. The earliest record of a Chrismas tree in the White House is 1889, when President Benjamin Harrison “decorated a live tree with tinsel and popcorn,” according to the White House Historical Association.

It’s also worth noting that the White House Christmas Ornament sold each year since 1981 by the historical association (a private charity) has traditionally had a historical, rather than a religious, theme. This year’s ornament is a depiction of the home of President Grover Cleveland, for example. The one possibly religious-themed ornament was the first one, a replica of an 1840 weathervane from the Unitarian Universalist church in Newburyport, Mass. It was the figure of an angel.

That Other Tree

The tradition of secular ornaments also has held at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the Capitol Christmas Tree has gone up each year since 1964. Each year a different state is selected to supply the tree, and school children from that state are invited to create ornaments. But the criteria are set by the Architect of the Capitol, not the White House.

In 2007 Vermont was asked to supply 600 to 700 ornaments and relayed word to schools that “[o]rnaments with [a] religious theme are not acceptable.” Last year it was Montana’s turn, and word went out to “artists of all ages” that “[o]rnaments cannot reflect a religious or political theme. Instead, share your interpretation of our theme ‘Sharing Montana’s Treasures.’ ”

This year Arizona got the honor, and as in past years told schools that “[o]rnaments cannot reflect a religious or political theme.” But this time an Arizona-based group called the “Alliance Defense Fund” complained. The ADF, which crusades against what it calls attempts to “censor Christmas,” sent a letter threatening to sue the government on behalf of a mother whose son wished to submit an ornament saying “Happy Birthday Jesus” and another depicting a manger scene with the infant Christ.

A regional official of the U.S. Forestry Service quickly wrote back to say that the ban would be removed. The official said somebody in the office of the Architect of the U.S. Capitol had “inadvertently provided us outdated guidance,” and that “we regret the concerns this has raised.” He added, “We look forward to any and all ornaments that residents of Arizona contribute.”

The client’s son was allowed to submit his religiously themed ornaments, but hadn’t been told whether or not either had been selected, ADF officials told us. The 2009 tree’s official theme remains secular, however. It is “Arizona’s Gift From The Grand Canyon State.”

-Brooks Jackson


National Christmas Tree Association. White House Christmas Tree: 2009; 2009 Grand Champions Selected.” 14 Aug 2009.

The Associated Press. “White House Christmas tree will be from W.Va.; It’s a record fourth win for tree farmers Eric and Gloria Sundback.” 26 Aug 2009.

National Park Service. “National Christmas Tree Program.” Web site accessed 14 Oct 2009.

Nyholm, Christine. “Christmas Decorations at U.S. White House; Eight Years of Festive Holiday Themes During the Bush Administraion.” Suite101.com magazine. 12 Dec 2008.

Office of the First Lady. “Fact Sheet: White House Holiday Decorations; ‘A Red, White and Blue Christmas.’.” 3 Dec 2008.

Office of the First Lady. “Fact Sheet: White House Holiday Decorations.” 29 Nov. 2007

Office of the First Lady. “Fact Sheet: White House Holiday Decorations.” 30 Nov. 2006

Office of the First Lady. “Fact Sheet: White House Holiday Decorations.” 30 Nov. 2005

Office of the First Lady. “A Season of Merriment and Melody; Holidays at the White House 2004.” booklet. Dec 2004.

Office of the First Lady. “Blue Room — Pages from the Past.” Archived 2003 “Holidays at the White House” Web page. Accessed  24 Oct 2009.

Office of the First Lady. “All Creatures Great and Small; Holidays at the White House 2002” program booklet. Accessed 24 Oct 2009.

Office of the First Lady. “Holiday Decorations.” Photo caption. Accessed 24 Oct 2009.

The White House Historical Association. “Christmas 1981” Undated booklet.

The White House Historical Association. “The 2009 White House Christmas Ornament.” Web site accessed 24 Oct. 2009.

Vermont Department of Education; 2007 Capitol Christmas Tree Ornament Project “Opportunity for Teachers and Students – Participate in the Capitol Tree Ornament Project 2007.” undated press release. Accessed 24 Oct 2009.

Capitol Christmas Tree 2008. “Handmade Ornament Campaign; Ornament Criteria for Outdoor 60+ Ft. Tree.” undated handout. Accessed 24 Oct 2009.

Alliance Defense Fund. “Federal government bans religious references on ornaments for 2009 Capitol Christmas Tree.” press release. 29 Sep 2009.

Scruggs, Jonathan. Letter to Arizona Gov. Janice K. Brewer et. al. Alliance Defense Fund. 28 Sep 2009.

Newman, Corbin L. Jr., Regional Forester. Letter to Jonathan Scruggs, Alliance Defense Fund U.S. Forest Service, Southwest Regional Office. 2 Oct 2009.