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The White House Easter Egg Roll

By Terry Kaufman

The White House Easter Egg Roll is one of the oldest and most unusual traditions in presidential history. It has gone through many transformations over the years, with new surprises with each presidential administration coming into office.

Many Washington families, including those of the President, enjoyed rolling eggs on Easter Monday. At this point, it was still an informal, unofficial activity. Historians have a split opinion on who was the first to suggest a public egg roll. Some believe it was Dolly Madison, while others think informal egg-rolling festivities at the White House only go back to President Abraham Lincoln’s administration.

Nevertheless, at first, the public egg rolls were not held at the White House but at the Capitol. Press releases told of Washington children of all ages coming to roll eggs at the Capitol, as early as 1872.

The children of Washington were not quite as angelic as their parents would have preferred. These children caused such a ruckus, and caused such considerable damage to the Capitol grounds, that in 1876, Congress passed the Turf Protection Law to ban Washington children from using these grounds for a playground in subsequent years. Mother Nature rained out the event in 1877; in 1878, a small announcement in the local newspaper informed the community that the egg rollers were not to use the Capitol grounds that year.

A small controversy ensued. Depending upon who was relating the story, one version said angry egg rollers stormed the gates of the White House, demanding they be given admittance to the President’s lawn so that they might roll their eggs. The other side of the story credits President Rutherford B. Hayes, having heard about the children’s plight, opening the gates to the South Lawn. No matter who to believe - the first White House Egg Roll occurred in 1878.

And so, in 1878, President Hayes and his wife, Lucy, officially opened the South Lawn for egg rolling. This Easter tradition has been observed ever since; the only cancellations were due to inclement weather and during World War I and World War II. During wartime, instead of using the White House grounds, egg rollers were seen around town, on the grounds of the Washington Monument and the National Zoo. Some even had the audacity to return to the Capitol grounds.

In the course of time, the Egg Rolls have gradually changed, bringing in additional games and entertainment. The new games became part of the festivities by the late 1800s: “Egg Picking,” “Egg Ball,” “Toss and Catch,” and “Egg Croquet” became favorites.

1899 brought John Philip Sousa and “The President’s Own” Marine Band to the party, while vendors sold all kinds of goods to the attendees. Forty years later, President Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Hoover, introduced folk and maypole dances but they proved not to be practical when combined with hard-boiled eggs.

1974 was a hallmark year for the egg-rolling portion of the festivities. For the first time, spoons borrowed from the White House kitchen made their entrance. In 1977, new amusements included a circus and a petting zoo. 1981 brought Broadway shows and giant balloons. 1981 also brought egg hunt pits where children could search for autographed wooden eggs hidden in the straw pits.

From the very beginning of the public egg rolls, it has been customary for the Presidents, First Ladies, their children, grandchildren and family pets to attend the party. And what would Easter be without the Easter Bunny? This lovable critter was the brainchild of Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s wife, in 1969. The Bunny is usually played by a White House staffer wearing the official White House rabbit suit.

When the young guests prepare to say good-bye, they each receive a special presidential wooden egg, signed by the President and the First Lady.

Tickets to the Easter Egg Roll are free but still rather difficult to obtain, being distributed on a first-come, first-served basis starting 2 days before the actual Egg Roll. Only 5 tickets per person are issued; although children of all ages may attend, at least one child 7 years old or younger must be with the group. Once the gates open at 8 a.m. Easter Monday, groups of roughly 300 ticket holders are admitted at 15-minute intervals.

Egg salad, anyone?

Terry Kaufman is Chief Editorial Writer for Niftykitchen.com, Niftyhomebar.com, and Niftygarden.com.

©2007 Terry Kaufman.

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