Throwing Snow Balls in the East Room?

Christmas at the White House–with President Andrew Jackson.

183 years ago on December 19, 1835: “About six o’clock the dining-room was opened, displaying a picture of surpassing beauty, one that the four seasons and field, forest, and lake had united in embellishing. The band stationed in the corridor struck up the President’s March,” and Miss Cora, forming us in line, the younger couples leading; marshaled us into supper. The scene of many historic banquets, commemorating; great events and shared by world-wide celebrities, that famous room never witnessed one in which the decorator’s art, or the confectioner’s skill, achieved greater triumphs — Vivart, hailed as Napoleon of Cocks, Master Chef de Cuisine, Wizard, Magician, receiving hearty congratulations on all sides.

In the center of a Maltese cross-shaped table towered a pyramid of snow-balls, interspersed with colored icicles and surmounted by a gilt game cock, head erect, wings outspread. At the upright ends of the cross were dishes of frozen marvels, at the top one representing iced fruits— oranges, apples, pears, peaches, grapes; at the bottom one representing iced vegetables — corn, carrots, beans, squashes.

At one transverse end was a tiny frosted pine tree, beneath which huddled a group of toy animals; at the other a miniature rein-deer stood in a plateau of water in which disported a number of gold-fish. There were candies, cakes, confections of every conceivable design; delicious viands, relishes and beverages. Though almost transfixed with admiring delight, we did ample justice to the tempting repast and eagerly accepted the lovely ornaments given us as souvenirs.

After supper the central pyramid was demolished and the snow-balls, which were made of non-combustible starch-coated cotton, each one enclosing a French pop-kiss, were distributed to us, and we were invited to play snow-ball in the East Room, an invitation the more joyfully hailed because the winter having been exceptionally mild we had been debarred our usual snow-ball games.

The balls striking exploded, and for some moments the East Room was the scene of an exciting snow flurry, with the startling addition of the thunder and lightning characteristic of summer storms. The President, Mrs. Madison, (Dolley Madison was America’s first ‘First Lady’) and other elderly guests, who had watched the game from the southern end of the room, heartily sharing and enjoying the children’s merriment, were spared, but the players, pelting each other unmercifully, looked like snow-entrapped wayfarers. It was great fun to see them dodging the balls and to hear them scream when struck, though the balls, being soft and light, caused no bruises and inflicted no damage on clothes or furniture.

The game, exhilarating and inspiring, was provokingly brief, the supply of snow-balls being soon exhausted. Then the escorts sent for the children having arrived, Miss Cora, giving us quietly some instructions, reformed us in line as at supper, the band played a lively air and we marched several times around the room. The last time, bowing to the group at the upper end, we paused before the President, and kissing our hands to him said,” Goodnight, General”; he smiling and bowing in return. “What a beautiful sight,” said Mrs. Madison. “It reminds me of the fairy procession in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “It recalls to me, Madam,” said the President, “our Divine Master’s words: ‘Suffer little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.”–Christmas Under Three Flags; Mary Emily Donelson Wilcox; 1900.

The Jackson-Donelson connection:

Mary Emily Donelson Wilcox was the first child born in the White House, on August 31, 1829. “She was the daughter of Andrew Jackson and Emily Tennessee Donelson, who were nephew and niece of Mrs. Jackson, the wife of President Andrew Jackson. Her father was one of two brothers, the other being Daniel Smith Donelson, who were sons of Samuel Donelson, brother of Mrs. Andrew Jackson and for many years a law partner of General Andrew Jackson. Mrs. Samuel Donelson, the mother of Mrs. Wilcox’s father was a daughter of Daniel Smith, one of the first Senators from Tennessee as well as one of the few members of the Upper House to resign his position, he having late in life tired of an active career and given up his seat to a younger man. Mrs. Wilcox’s uncle, Daniel Smith Donelson, an attorney of this city, residing at 1751 Madison Street Northwest.

Jackson’s Private Secretary: Andrew Jackson Donelson was at the time of Mrs. Wilcox’s birth, Private Secretary to President Andrew Jackson and as Mrs. Jackson (1767-1828) had died shortly before that event it devolved on Mrs. Emily Donelson to preside as mistress of the White House and First Lady of the land, a function which she performed with marked success and credit. Both Andrew Jackson Donelson², the father of Mrs. Wilcox and his brother, Daniel, were graduates of West Point, the former being an accomplished and cultured man of the old school.

The arrival of a baby in the White house was a unique event at that time and as a result the christening which took place a few weeks after the birth of Mrs. Wilcox was made an occasion of the first importance. Members of both Houses of Congress, the diplomatic corps and many other distinguished persons were invited and attended, the ceremony held in the East Room of the Presidential Mansion. The daughter of the Secretary of State, Miss Cora Livingstone acted as godmother while Martin Van Buren and President Jackson stood as godfathers. A full description of this ceremony of christening the first baby in the White House appeared some years ago in the Ladies’ Home Journal written by Alice Graham McCollin. Miss McCollin states further in her article that among the guests present on that occasion was Robert E. Lee, then a young Lieutenant of Engineers and his wife, nee Mary Custis.

The Donelsons remained at the White House throughout the Jackson administration. During this time the cornerstone of the new Treasury was laid and in the box which President Jackson placed in the corner stone was a curl of the Baby Donelson’s hair together with one of his messages to Congress.”  ¹  *Mary Emily Donelson Wilcox died on the 28th day of August, 1905, at the age of 75.  ◊ Andrew Jackson—“A Thoroughly Religious Man