Let's roll through the history of this timeless White House tradition.
For many of us, the Monday after Easter goes back to normal, as if the holiday never happened. We put away our Sunday’s best, empty our Easter baskets until next year, and race to the grocery store to stockpile the cache of candies and chocolates that are now on sale. The only semblance of all the planning that went into the grand feast, besides hosting fatigue, are the leftovers—you know, the hard-boiled eggs and savory post-holiday ham taking up all the space in the fridge. One exception and tradition, however, that continues to roll on is the annual egg race at the White House.
For the First Family and staffers fortunate enough to call our nation’s capital and the stately building home (or, at least work), they’ll be hosting the largest and most colorful public event the day after Easter. If you thought your Easter celebration was big, it's got nothing on this major egg-rolling party. The Easter Egg Roll drew more than 35,000 parents and children to the South Lawn last year, as well as the official White House Easter Bunny and a bevy of live musical acts and celebrity appearances. Although, the performance lineup and estimated attendance hasn’t been reported yet for this year’s event.
While the long-established custom of rolling eggs on the historic grounds has practically become a rite of passage for those who observe Easter, this time-honored tradition has come a long way since it was officially established by President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1878. In fact, the fun in Washington on Capitol Hill almost didn’t become the grandstanding institution as we now know it today.
Here, we look back at the White House Easter Egg Roll’s 138-year history to highlight 15 of the most surprising and memorable moments associated with the most sought-after ticket in D.C.
1. According to the White House Historical Association, some historians note that it was first lady Dolley Madison who originally proposed the idea of a public egg roll around 1810. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson’s young children held their own informal egg roll for their own amusement in the 1860s.
2. Taking advantage of a day off from school, more than 10,000 children were said to have gathered near the cast-iron dome of the U.S. capitol in 1876. Baskets in tow, filled with dyed Easter eggs, they set about to carry on the holiday tradition of rolling eggs down the hills to see how far they’d go without breaking.
3. Uh oh, here comes the fun police. The unusual sport of rolling and racing after hard-cooked eggs apparently did a lot of damage to the grounds of the Capitol. So in 1876, members of Congress approved the Turf Protection Act, signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, which prevented the Capitol’s grounds from being used “as a playground.” The law was supposed to take effect in 1877, but inclement weather prevented any Easter activities from occurring that year anyway. However, the egg rollers who showed up in 1878 were turned away and forced to play elsewhere.
4. President Hayes and his wife, Lucy, brought the holiday tradition back later in 1878 for the first official White House Easter Egg Roll. Every year thereafter, with a few notable exceptions, presidents have hosted the celebration on the South Lawn.
5. By the late 1800s, games such as egg picking, egg ball, toss and catch, and egg croquet were added to the Easter festivities.
6. The treasured tradition was cancelled due to World War I and suspended during the Second World War in 1942. When the White House underwent renovations in that same year, it was hosted by Congress and held at other locations.
7. After a 12-year hiatus, President Dwight D. Eisenhower brought the egg-stravaganza back in 1953.
8. In 1969, the White House Easter Bunny went hoppin’ down the government trail for the first time. The bunny was actually a staffer for first lady Pat Nixon. While we know that the Easter bunny is always part of the current administration’s staff, the rules forbid the bunny from revealing his or her identity, until now that is.
9. Ursula Meese, wife of President Reagan's Attorney General Edwin Meese III, was quite the Peter Rabbit of her time, as she performed as the White House Bunny for six seasons. It earned her the nickname "The Meester Bunny." And thanks to this unofficial Twitter account, we know just who was under the fleece costume during the George W. Bush Administration as well. Today, he’s traded in the long bunny ears for a suit and a podium, but there's no word yet if current Press Secretary Sean Spicer will be making a furry-tailed appearance again for this year’s celebration.
10. Enter the sacred spoon in 1974. Organizers were tasked with finding silverware for the first egg-rolling races, where children used spoons to push their eggs through the grass, down marked-off lanes.
11. Step right up: The circus came to town in 1977. President Jimmy Carter introduced a three-ring circus and menagerie, including a 1,200-pound steer named “Big Red.”
12. President Ronald Reagan, a superstar in his own right, brought a little Hollywood to the White House event in 1981. Not only did he and wife, Nancy, present Broadway show performances and the "Egg Hunt Pits," but they also had balloons from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floating in mid-air.
13. The Reagans were also the first to use wooden eggs at the Easter egg hunt, which were signed by Hollywood’s elite, widely-recognized athletes, and notable politicians. Ever since, wooden eggs imprinted with the president and first lady’s signatures are handed out as a small memento to children under 13 years old.
14. By 2009, the Easter Egg Roll had become the hottest ticket in D.C. So much so, an online lottery for tickets was established to give children from all around the country the opportunity to attend. The lottery is held in March each year for three days only.
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15. Let’s Move! The initiative started by former first lady Michelle Obama is added to the White House Fun Run in 2016 as one of the event’s many fun-filled activities to conquer childhood obesity.