Today the East Room is draped with snowy greens and red ribbons. Carnations bloom in vermeil containers atop the mantels. Christmas trees are trimmed with silvered-glass ornaments, painted in red and fuchsia.
For years the East Room has been home to the White House crèche, a gift to the White House in 1967 from Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard, Jr., of Far Hills, New Jersey. The figures representing the Nativity are made of carved wood and terra cotta, and were crafted in Naples, Italy, in the late 18th century.
Fortunately, these delicate figures were nowhere near the East Room on a winter night in 1835. In her memoirs, President Jackson's grand-niece, Mary Emily Donelson Wilcox, recalls one of the earliest East Room holiday celebrations: a Christmas "frolic" for Washington children.
As the young revelers arrived that evening, they found a table laden with fruits and vegetables, a pine tree, a decorative reindeer — and a pile of cotton "snowballs." Behind their soft exterior, these "snowballs" concealed a surprise: Christmas crackers, much like those set off during British holiday celebrations. The Jacksons' young guests soon began pulling apart the snowballs — setting off the caps, and sending fluffs of cotton all over the East Room.
That winter was one of the warmest on record in Washington, leaving little opportunity for boys and girls to play in the snow. So children at the Jackson "frolic" made up for lost time — by waging a tremendous cotton snowball fight inside the White House!