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The White House and the Celebration of Chanukah

President Harry S. Truman (left) in the Oval Office, receiving a menorah 
as a gift from David Ben-Gurion (center) and Abba Eban (Right)

Since 1800, the White House has had Christmas celebrations and, beginning in 1923, a Christmas tree lighting. For decades, the White House behaved as if all Americans celebrated Christmas.

It was not until 1979 that a president recognized Chanukah when Jimmy Carter lit the National Menorah erected in Lafayette Square with private funds. He also recognized there were people who did not celebrate Christmas by referring “to those of our fellow citizens who join us in the joyous celebration of Christmas” in his annual Christmas message. Similar ceremonies and messages became routine afterward.

President George W. Bush 
lighting the menorah

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush became the first president to display a menorah in the White House. Four years later, Bill Clinton was the first to light a menorah in the White House. There were no other special events in the building, but Jews were invited to an annual “holiday party.”

George W. Bush took the next incremental step in 2001 when he became the first president to light a menorah in the White House residence in addition to public areas. and not just in its public spaces. He also inaugurated a White House Chanukah party.

Barack Obama went him one better by hosting two parties in 2013. President Donald Trump did the same in 2018 and 2019. Due to the coronavirus, the White House planned one smaller party for 2020.

Jonathan D. Sarna, “How Hanukkah came to be an annual White House celebration,” Washington Post, (December 4, 2020).

Photo: Truman - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Bush - President George W. Bush at the White House with Rabbi Joshua Skoff of the Park Synagogue, Cleveland, Ohio, and son, Jared, (December 6, 2005). The White House. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.