by Carl Anthony
The earliest recorded Easter egg roll took place during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, a small event hosted by his son Tad. Under Rutherford Hayes, it became an annual event open to the public. During the wartime eras of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the years when the White House was being renovated under Harry Truman, the event was suspended.
Through the centuries, the custom has evolved along the way, and during the Nixon family’s residency there, the White House Easter Egg Roll was given the organization that first marked it as the modern event it is today.
In their first weeks in the White House, there was more anticipation about the new First Lady’s “Easter outfit” than the egg roll, it still being an era when women often bought new spring clothing in bright colors. At an event publicizing U.S. savings bonds, Pat Nixon revealed that the sky blue suit she had on would be what she’d be wearing on Easter Sunday, but the public did not get to see her in it at that year’s Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn. The family spent the holiday at their Key Biscayne, Florida home and returned later that night.
In 1970, the Nixon family returned to Key Biscayne, many receiving media focus for different reasons. The First Lady appeared in a new pink and white Easter outfit, with an unusually short skirt that made news. Appearing for Easter Sunday services, the President proved something of a rival, wearing a bandage on the left side of his forehead for a minor cut he got during a boating accident during his day with friends in the Bahama Islands. First Daughter Tricia Nixon was especially noticed for the presence of her “somewhat constant friend,” who the White House said was nothing more than that. It was law student Edward Cox, who she married fifteen months later in a White House Rose Garden ceremony.
Although the First Lady remained with her family on the day after Easter, back at the White House, her influence at the egg roll was distinctively felt. Despite the frigid 31 degrees weather, thousands of children and their parents had turned out for the annual event, Pat Nixon made their effort worthwhile.
For the first time in the White House Easter Egg Roll, she had an Easter Bunny appear as the star of the event, an unknown member of the presidential staff dressing in a white bunny costume and posing with the children for photographs. She also arranged for a military regiment, dressed in white wigs, tricornered hats and red colonial era uniforms, provide lively music on the fife and drums while marching in place. As was the tradition, children were expected to bring their own Easter baskets of to tilt and let the colored hard-boiled eggs in it roll down the South Lawn greensward. However, many parents were unaware of this and just as many kids were left sad and eggless as there were those who brought some and were able to participate. The First Lady took note of this.
In 1971, the First Lady joined her family, as well as former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, the grandmother-in-law of Julie Nixon, for Easter Sunday church services at the Presbyterian Church in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the Nixon family having spent the holiday weekend at the presidential retreat Camp David. At the White House, however, she had substantially changed the entire experience of the annual egg roll.
Now there was a point of focus to the previously somewhat aimless event, the First Lady having a massive wood stand in the shape of a colorful painted egg constructed and placed at the center of the lawn with the words “Welcome to the White House” painted above it. Here, the day started for most of the attendees, the adults bringing their children inside the wood egg structure to have their pictures taken. She had a live white rabbit, in a protective pen, brought to the lawn for children to see and feed carrots. And for the first time there were several clowns in attendance, helping to organize the informal egg-rolling, the winner of one of these haphazard contests found to be rolling a stone!
On April 4, 1972, the White House Easter Egg Roll had its first member of the Nixon family appear. Accompanied by the Easter Bunny, the costume being worn by John Nidecker, a member of the West Wing staff, Tricia Nixon Cox waded into the sea of children and their parents, greeting them with handshakes and hugs, complying with their autograph requests, and declaring an orange egg with a painted image of the president to be “a great likeness.” That year the President and Mrs. Nixon, their daughters and sons-in-law were again joined by former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower for Easter dinner at Camp David, after attending services at the Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Presbyterian Church.
The April 23, 1973 Easter Egg Roll again had the Nixon family spending the holiday weekend in Key Biscayne and none returned in time for them to attend the event.
However, Pat Nixon unveiled yet another new element to the annual event, having circus performers show off their magic tricks, physical comedy and acts for the children, the first time there was any organized entertainment at the event, which was nearing its official centennial at that point.
And, recalling how many families still attended the event without bringing colored eggs of their own to participate in contests, the First Lady had the White House kitchen now provide the very first Easter eggs for the general public, distributed at the egg-roll, with reports of even White House spoons being loaned to the little guests to help them push along their eggs. Many of those who had arrived for the event with their own baskets of eggs, now left with even more, thanks to the First Lady.
The Nixons spent Easter of 1974 at Camp David, but their daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower appeared at that year’s White House Easter Egg Roll.
True to form, the First Lady had also continued to innovate the traditional event.
That year, she threw the doors of the White House open to the public, so that children and parents could wander through the rooms of the state floor from the lawn. She also initiated an official and organized egg-rolling contest with lines and rules, judges and prizes. Pat Nixon also made sure that there were “certificates of participation” issued to all those who attended, thus creating the very first souvenirs of the historic White House Easter Egg Roll event in its century long history.
Today, it may seem to have been a missed opportunity that neither the President or Mrs. Nixon were able to attend any of the six White House Easter Egg Rolls that took place during their residency there. However, they were actually following a relatively recent custom. Neither the President and Mrs. Kennedy, nor the President and Mrs. Johnson ever attended any of the egg rolls from 1961 to 1968, both couples also having spent the holiday weekend at their private family vacation homes.
Attendance by Presidents and First Ladies had followed no particular pattern from the Hayes to the Franklin Roosevelt presidencies, some attending every year, a few, one or none at all. The event was not revived after its suspension during World War II until the first one of the Eisenhower presidency, in April of 1953 when the President came down to join the crowds but his family was more often away at their Augusta, Georgia retreat for the holiday weekend.
Beginning with Betty Ford in 1975, First Ladies began regularly appearing at all of the subsequent White House Easter Egg Rolls and Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have all made at least one appearance during their presidencies.
What has marked the modern White House Easter Egg Rolls is that the annual event is no longer simply a mass gathering of some children with eggs, some without, often rather aimless and bored as they had been in earlier years. From the center point “welcoming egg,” to the presence of a Easter Bunny, official egg rolling contests, eggs (now made in wood, plastic and even glass, bearing the presidential seal and printed autograph), ongoing live music and other entertainments — all of it can be credited directly to First Lady Pat Nixon.