Everybody loves Easter, and it’s extra special for those able to travel to Washington, D.C. for the holiday. For over 130 years, the White House has hosted an Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn every Easter Monday. The event is for children 13 and under and their parents.
A Race, Bunny Costumes, and Decorative Eggs
The Egg Roll is a race for the kids, who must push their eggs through the grass using a long-handled spoon. In addition to the Egg Roll, participants are treated to White House members dressed in Easter Bunny costumes, as well as members of the cabinet reading books and giving speeches. There are also beautifully decorated eggs hidden throughout the property.
The First White House Egg Roll
President James Madison and his wife, Dolley Madison, reportedly held the first Easter Egg Roll in 1814. They invited hundreds of children to bring decorated eggs to the United States Capitol to play games to celebrate the Christian holiday. Over 10,000 children participated in the Easter Egg Roll in 1876. They carried their colorful eggs in baskets and rolled the eggs, and themselves, down the grassy area of the Capitol grounds. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported at the time: “The noise was so great that in the House and Senate Chambers it drowned all other sounds.” But not everyone was pleased with the chaos of the event.
Egg Roll Moves to the White House
The grass on the grounds of the Capitol was worn completely down as a result of the children’s activities. In 1877, gardeners planted a new lawn at the Capitol and canceled the event. Not long afterward, Congress passed a law that made it illegal for the grounds of the Capitol to be used by children as a playground. But the President at the time, Rutherford B. Hayes, and his wife, Lucy Hayes, were not deterred. They decided to host the event on the lawns of the White House, thus launching the first annual White House Easter Egg Roll in 1878.
First Lady No Shows
Lucretia Garfield, wife of James A. Garfield, was First Lady of the United States in 1881. She was living in the White House on Easter Sunday, April 17, 1881. However, she was unable to attend the Easter Monday Egg Roll because she was battling malaria and was bedridden. The event took place just two days after her birthday and was the only opportunity she had to attend because the President was assassinated a few months later. In 1882, Molly McElroy served as First Lady for her widowed brother, President Chester Arthur. She also skipped the Easter Egg Roll because she was not in residence at the time.
President Cleveland Adds to the Tradition
Over the years, the Easter Egg Roll has become more than just rolling eggs on the South Lawn and then going home with the family. In 1885, several young egg rollers decided to roll their eggs into the East Room. They entered the White House with hopes of having an audience with President Grover Cleveland. The President heard about their shenanigans and decided to come out of his office and meet with the kids. He was so charmed by the children that he decided to allow them to have an indoor egg roll reception. This later became a custom.
The President’s Dog Gets in on the Action
On April 9, 1887, The Memphis Appeal reported that: “Egg rolling at Easter is common enough, but why it was inaugurated children, far longer back than any body can remember, should this day take possession of one particular spot is as queer as anything in the mysterious regions of child myths and customs. Nobody knows when it originated. It is required of every President that besides giving up his private grounds on that day, he shall come out at least once that afternoon and show himself on the south portico.” In the 1890s, the Clevelands allowed their dog Hector to roam around among the egg rollers.
President’s Children Are Not Included
In 1902, many believed that President Theodore Roosevelt and First Lady Edith Roosevelt’s four sons and two daughters would mingle with the other children during the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn. On March 31, 1902, the newspaper the Omaha Daily Bee stated, “The Roosevelt youngsters will be in their glory today as leaders in the annual egg-rolling contest in the back lot of the White House.” But it was not to be. The First Lady reportedly did not approve of the event because she felt the festivities wrecked the lawn of the White House, thus she did not allow her children to participate.
A First Lady Mingles with the Crowd
While many of the First Ladies opted to watch the Easter Egg Roll from the portico, the first one to step into the action was reportedly Nellie Taft. In 1909, she and her husband, President William Howard Taft, hosted a delegation of people for a reception on Easter Monday. In 1910, she and the President had “given consent” for the annual event to occur. By 1912, it was reported that she was thrilled to mingle with guests on the South Lawn without being recognized. She is reportedly the first First Lady to leave the portico post and join the public in the festivities.
A Year Without Egg Rolling
In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison decided that the annual Easter Egg Roll was missing a crucial element – music. He invited the United States Marine Band, also known as “The President’s Own,” to play upbeat music for the children as the played on the White House South Lawn. In 1918, the Egg Roll was canceled. District of Columbia food administrator Charles Wilson noted that “nothing that is an article of diet should be destroyed” because of World War I restrictions on food consumption. The destruction of eggs as part of the Easter Monday Egg Roll was unacceptable and therefore put on hold.
Easter Egg Roll Is Broadcast on Radio
The White House Easter Egg Roll once again had music from the Marine Band play in 1921. The event was attended by President Warren G. Harding, First Lady Florence Harding, and their pet Airedale terrier, Laddie Boy. In addition, cast members from the children’s play, “Alice and the White Rabbit,” also attended the event. At the time, the play was in the midst of its run in Washington, D.C. On April 1, 1929, children and families who weren’t invited to the event were able to get in on the action. For the first time ever, the White House Easter Egg Roll was broadcast on radio station WRC in Washington, D.C.
Grace Coolidge & Her Raccoon
In the 1920s, First Lady Grace Coolidge attended every single Easter Monday Egg Roll that occurred while she lived in the White House (a total of five). She holds the record as the first First Lady to attend every single one of the annual egg-rolling events held during her tenure from 1924 to 1928. In addition, she was the first presidential spouse to chat with and engage with the children and their families without hiding her identity. The public loved meeting with Grace, who was known for taking her pets (including a raccoon!) into the crowd every year so guests could get to know them better.
Scamper: The Bunny Who Went To The White House
In 1933, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the White House Easter Egg Roll with her dog Meg, daughter Anna Dall and grandchildren Sisty and Buzzy. The event made such an impact on Anna that the First Daughter was inspired to write a children’s book about the festivities called Scamper: The Bunny Who Went To The White House, which centered on the adventures of a rabbit who lives in the White House with the President’s grandchildren. In the following years, several First Ladies did not appear publicly at the White House Easter Egg Roll, including Bess Truman, Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon.
Huge Crowds of People
By 1937, more than 50,000 children and their families descended onto the South Lawn every year to take part in the Easter Egg Roll. While some Presidents and their First Ladies loved having the children romp on the lawn and celebrate the holiday, not everyone looked forward to the spring event. Historian C.L. Arbelbide wrote in a piece for the National Archives that first lady Edith Roosevelt was not a fan of the Egg Roll. She didn’t like the smell that emanated from the broken eggs and lamented the “needless destruction of the lovely grass.” She had five children, so it’s a surprise she was so anti-Easter Egg Rolling!
Several Years Without an Easter Egg Roll
But once again, war resulted in the cancellation of the Easter Egg Roll. From 1943 to 1945, during World War II, festivities were halted on the South Lawn. Then President Harry S. Truman was forced to cancel the 1946 and 1947 Easter Egg Rolls due to food conservation efforts. Even after the war, the Easter Egg Roll was in jeopardy. Truman’s renovation of the White House had turned the South Lawn into a construction zone from 1948 to 1952. As a result, the Easter Egg Roll was canceled for an additional five years. Fortunately, the Egg Roll would continue on.
The First Official White House Easter Bunny
President Dwight D. Eisenhower revived the Easter Egg Roll after a 12-year hiatus in 1953. Shortly afterward, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower decided that the event should be open to African-American children and their families. Children of all races had been welcomed in the pre-Jim Crow Washington era. In 1969, one of First Lady Pat Nixon’s staff members donned a white jumpsuit and Peter Rabbit mask, thus creating the first official White House Easter Bunny. The bunny shook hands with kids on the South Lawn’s circular driveway, and a new tradition was born. Many were more excited to see the bunny than the President.
Sean Spicer Plays the Easter Bunny
In 2008, a special White House staffer was chosen to wear the venerable Easter Bunny costume – Sean Spicer (the current White House Press Secretary and communications director). In a 2008 Politico Q&A, Spicer opened up about the gig. “It gets very hot. Each bunny gets a handler who guides them around the South Lawn. My handler for the event was my wife, Rebecca, who has been keeping me in line for years,” he revealed. “Kids love the Easter Bunny. There is something real special about seeing all the families on the White House lawn. The first lady and several members of the Cabinet, including Ambassador [Susan] Schwab, read to the children during the day.”
“The Bunny Does Not Speak”
When asked if he recognized any famous children at the Egg Roll, Spicer answered: “I can’t see too much, and the bunny does not talk, but every child is special on this day. Most children are so excited to see the bunny that they are on their best behavior. I really get a kick out of the ones that thank the bunny for their basket or a gift they got on Easter.” He added that he didn’t chat with attendees: “There are so many children trying to say hi and have their photo taken that there really isn’t much time, and since the bunny does not speak, it would be tough.”
Wooden Egg Keepsakes
In the 1970s, the Egg Roll became more than just a traditional Easter celebration on the South Lawn. The White House also created a carnival-type atmosphere. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter invited a three-ring circus to participate in the event. That included a 1,200-pound steer named “Big Red.” President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan decided to add Broadway show performances and balloons from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1981. The Reagans also hid wooden eggs autographed by celebrities and famous politicians. Ever since, kids 13 and younger receive wooden eggs with signatures from the President and First Lady to take home.
First Lady Eliza Johnson Makes History
So who was the “first” First Lady to appear at a White House Easter Egg Roll event? Eliza Johnson was the wife of Andrew Johnson, the 17th President of the United States. She served as First Lady from 1865 to 1869. White House clerk William Crook stated in his memoirs that even though the First Lady had chronic tuberculosis that limited many public appearances, she went out onto the South Portico to watch her five little grandchildren rolling colored eggs on Easter Monday. The First Lady was reportedly delighted by the children’s activities on the lawn. It’s unclear whether other children were present during the festivities.
The Egg Roll in Recent Years
In 1975, Betty Ford was the first presidential spouse to attend the event since Eleanor Roosevelt attended during her husband’s presidency in 1941. Rosalynn Carter also attended the event every single year that she was First Lady. By the time Barbara Bush was First Lady, new bunny costumes were created and the characters posed with the Presidents and First Ladies for photographs. Hillary Clinton never missed an event during her tenure. Laura Bush included families with same-sex parents. When Michelle Obama became First Lady, she included food demonstrations intended to promote a healthy diet, a component of her “Let’s Move” initiative.