Easter at the White House

Behind the current media accounts of the annual Easter Egg Roll and the First Lady, lies a legend that the event is nearly as old as the nation. It is a piece of folklore that grounds the celebration as a national holiday with roots that go back to our founders, extending beyond religious affiliation. Specifically, the story is that Dolley Madison, the “First Great Washington Hostess,” introduced the tradition while she was First Lady, between 1809 and 1816.

Politico stated on April 13 of this year, that “The roots of the Easter Egg Roll are often traced to President James Madison and first lady, Dolly Madison, but these early public celebrations were held on Capitol Hill.” Info.com declared in 2014 that “The egg roll became more popular in the United States in the early 1800s, when Dolly Madison, the wife of President James Madison, organized a huge children’s egg roll in Washington, D.C.” albeit again at the Capitol. Even the Bush-era website on the Easter Egg Roll asserted that “rolling eggs on the Monday after Easter was a tradition observed by many Washington families, including those of the President. Some historians believe Dolley Madison first suggested the idea of a public egg roll, while others tell stories of informal egg-rolling parties at the White House dating back to President Lincoln’s day.”

During the Founding Era, however, religious observances such as Easter and Christmas were simply not part of the national calendar. Indeed, when James Madison was President of the United States, Easter was not yet a publicly celebrated holiday; it was observed neither at the president’s mansion—not yet officially known as the White House—nor by Congress. And a search of Dolley’s letters fails to produce a single mention of Easter or Easter eggs. That leaves two questions: when and where did the tradition begin, and what does Dolley Madison have to do with it?

According to the White House Historical Association, children began celebrating Easter Monday after the end of the Civil War, by rolling Easter eggs on the west grounds of the United States Capitol. They must have made quite a mess and it surely smelled terrible, because in his last year in office President Grant signed a bill prohibiting the festivities. Two years later, according to the local press, children moved their games to the South Lawn of the White House and by 1880 had taken “absolute possession of the grounds south of the White House.”

Assuming these stories are accurate, what do they tell us? First, that there was no fence guarding the White House grounds, and local residents saw both Congressional and Presidential lawns as public spaces where they could play. Second, they speak to an era when the boundaries between public and federal land in Washington, D.C. were unclear, where the White House kept a cow or two for its milk, and where a hundred years ago President Woodrow Wilson had sheep grazing on the grounds.

Dolley Madison is part of the mythology of the Easter Egg Roll at the White House because her image reigned supreme in the American imagination for over a hundred years. She was the symbol of American hospitality, warmth, and graciousness. By the late 19th century manufacturers were using her image to promote their products. Between 1876, which marked the end of Reconstruction, and World War II, all kinds of manufacturers used her image as part of their advertising campaigns to send a message of grace and charm and cordiality. If not unique, Dolley Madison was one of the very few American icons with an equal appeal to both the North and the South. And so, while no longer as important in our national memory, she is still lodged in our collective minds not only as the heroine who saved the portrait of George Washington from the invading British Army, but as a symbol of our national character of generosity and good will. PC: Library of Congress