On Monday April 1, 2013, the First Family will host the 135th annual White House Easter Monday Egg Roll. The White House expects some 35,000 people to attend the event on the South Lawn (that’s still not as many as the more than 51,000 who attended in 1941). The event has become increasingly elaborate in modern times, incorporating celebrities, musical talent and more organized activities. This year, the event will also include more sports activities and cooking demonstrations related to First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative. Here are some fun tidbits from our archives about the history of the Easter Monday Egg Roll.
1. The White House was not always the host of the Easter Monday Egg Roll. Until the mid-1870s, children used the Capitol grounds to roll both their hard boiled eggs and themselves down the lawns. After the children’s activities took their toll on the landscape in 1876, Congress passed a law forbidding the Capitol grounds to be used as a children's playground. The law was first enforced in 1878. Although politically mute, Lucy Hayes was a visible social presence in her husband's administration. When Congress no longer allowed the Easter Egg Roll on the Capitol grounds, she offered the White House lawn as a permanent substitute. And after being approached by children, President Rutherford B. Hayes issued an official order that should any children arrive at the White House to egg roll on Easter Monday, they were to be allowed to do so.
2. Not greatly interested in the traditional role of the First Lady, Edith Wilson hired a secretary to meet the demands of her limited social calendar. She then used the American declaration of war in 1917 as an excuse to eliminate official entertaining altogether. Public tours of the White House ended, the annual Easter Egg Roll and New Year's Day reception ceased, and formal dinners were kept to a minimum.
3. Though she fashioned herself a presidential adviser, Florence Harding embraced the hostessing duties of First Lady and revived a number of traditions suspended during the Wilson years. She brought back the Easter Egg Roll and the weekly Marine Band concerts, and reopened the house to tourists -- sometimes guiding the tours herself.
4. In 1933, Eleanor Roosevelt greeted visitors and listeners alike for the first time over the radio, on a nationwide hookup. She also introduced more organized games.
5. When Mamie Eisenhower revived the White House Easter Egg Roll, which had not taken place since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, she made sure that for the first time African American children could also join in the fun. Mrs. Eisenhower considered this a nonpolitical action, but in a country divided by racial segregation, it carried symbolic significance.
6. Pat Nixon introduced the White House Easter Bunny in 1969. Although the bunny is prohibited from being seen without his costume head, occasionally the identity of the White House staffer donning the rabbit suit is revealed. John E. Nidecker, a Nixon White House aide, was one of the first to appear in costume. One of the most famous bunnies was Ursula Meese, the wife of President Reagan’s Attorney General, Edwin Meese III, who played the role for six seasons, earning the name, “The Meester Bunny.”
7. Commemorative wooden eggs first became part of the tradition in 1981, when the President and Nancy Reagan hosted a hunt for keepsake eggs that bore the signatures of actors, actresses, famous politicians, and athletes.