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Susquehanna Life

Of the Season: A Formal, Traditional, All-American Holiday

Nov 23, 2020 09:10AM ● By Stephanie Kalina-Metzger

The Eisenhower family welcomed guests in the living room

A Formal, Traditional, All-American Holiday [9 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower may be gone, but their spirits live on in their home located just outside Gettysburg in Adam’s County, the site of a unique holiday celebration.

A Christmas portrait of President Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower with their four grandchildren. Seated L-R: David, Susan, the President and First Lady, Mary Jean and Barbara Ann. Standing, L-R: Barbara and John Eisenhower

The Eisenhower National Historic Site preserves the home, farm and surrounding property of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States. 

Ike, as he was known, became familiar with the Gettysburg area after visiting the battlefield in 1915 as a West Point student. When he later served as an army officer at nearby Camp Colt, Ike became even more enamored with the area. In 1950, Ike and Mamie Eisenhower decided it was time to set down roots in the bucolic area, which provided a view of South Mountain and the Gettysburg Battlefield. The home served as a weekend retreat for the couple to escape the pressures of Washington until 1961, when they moved in permanently.

Mrs. Christmas

Today the house and grounds are open for guided tours where guests can get a feel for what it was like to live like Ike, although it was Mamie who was responsible for the construction and decoration of the house. At one point, Eisenhower told the contractor, “For God’s sakes, just give her what she wants and send me the bill.” 

Mamie’s passion for decorating extended to the Christmas season and she soon became known as “Mrs. Christmas” while in the White House, where she oversaw the decorating of dozens of trees. Not one to keep her Christmas spirit to herself, she shared her joy with staff by passing out gifts to all employees. Mamie’s penchant for Christmas carried over to her abode in Adam’s County. Today, the National Park Service is responsible for the upkeep of the house and property and does its best to keep Mamie’s love of Christmas alive during each holiday season.

Historic authenticity

Holiday decorations sit upon the fireplace mantle in the living room. The fireplace, which was once located in the White House, was a centerpiece of the first family’s most formal room

Museum curator Michael Florer said that the National Park Service decorates the home authentically with knowledge from oral histories gleaned from family members and household staff. “There’s a tree in the living room, lots of poinsettias, which Mamie loved, a della Robbia-style wreath with fruit hanging on the front door and carols piped throughout the house,” Florer describes. 

Nearly all the decorations are reproductions, although a few original items are on display. The shadowbox on a curio cabinet in the entranceway shows a tree with presents for the family, including a set of golf clubs for Ike, Tiffany packages for Mamie and additional presents for the three oldest grandchildren. “The Eisenhowers owned it, but we don’t know who made it,” said Florer. Other original items include a soft sculpture of Father Christmas in the living room and a ceramic Christmas box made by Susan Eisenhower and displayed in the sunroom.

Special memories

The dining room, where the family enjoyed special holiday dinners

Mary Jean Eisenhower, who now lives in Abilene, Kansas, has fond memories of time spent at her grandparents’ home in the Gettysburg area. “As you know, my grandmother loved to decorate and she gave me what was left of her Christmas decorations two years before she passed,” she said, adding that her grandmother was raised in the Victorian era and passed down Victorian ornaments that are laced with beads. “They are absolutely beautiful,” she said. 

Eisenhower also sheds a little light on the soft sculpture that is still displayed at the house. “When Nikita Khruschev came to visit my grandparents, he brought a Father Christmas made of spun cotton. He also brought tree ornaments—mostly vegetables and farm things,” she said.

Staff at the Eisenhower National Historic Site decorate the Eisenhower home much like it would have been during the first family’s residency there in the 1950s and 60s

After opening gifts, the family would retire to the dining room for the holiday meal, with Ike seated at the head of the table and Mamie at the far end, and family and friends in between. Guests will see holiday china decorated with festive Christmas trees and candy canes affixed with green ribbons. 

Eisenhower describes a typical Christmas day with her grandparents. “It was quite the celebration, with a formal, traditional, all-American meal. Grandad carved the turkey, while usually making some comment on not being a surgeon,” said Eisenhower, with a chuckle, adding that Mamie brought out her fine china and silverware for the occasion. “It really was quite beautiful,” she said. 

According to Eisenhower, the dinner was more of an intimate affair with her three siblings, their parents and of course the grandparents, along with the occasional friend, although it didn’t necessarily start out that way. “At one point, early on, we had about 30 at the table,” said Eisenhower, adding that she is happy that, through the efforts of the National Park Service, she is able to share a glimpse into those happy years when Ike and Mamie were known simply as Granddad and Mimi.

Stephanie Kalina-Metzger is an award-winning freelance writer from Camp Hill whose work can be seen in dozens of publications throughout the United States.

Plan Your Visit 

Information is subject to change, due to the pandemic. Please check the website or call before you go. 

The splendor of Christmas is on display at the Eisenhower farm in Gettysburg. You can visit from Friday, November 27 through Thursday, December 31. 

Shuttle buses leave the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center regularly throughout the day. The site is closed on December 25 and January 1. Advance reservations are available and highly recommended for groups. Reservations can be made by calling 1 (877) 874-2478.

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