A White House Tradition Rolls On

The Obamas mark their final Easter egg roll, an event that dates back to 1878.

President Herbert Hoover greets the attendees of the White House Easter egg roll in 1930. (Library of Congress)

The Monday after Easter in 1931 was rainy and windy in Washington, D.C. Just over 30,000 people had gathered on the south lawn of the White House for some traditional egg-rolling and wholesome fun. President Herbert Hoover stepped out onto the executive mansion’s south portico to greet the crowds dressed in their Sunday’s best. Samuel Jackson, a 10-year-old boy from Michigan, was reportedly so excited to see the commander-in-chief that he slipped on the wet grass and broke his arm.

“Oh, look at this old rain,” first lady Lou Henry Hoover remarked that day, according to historians. “We had hoped there would be lots of sunshine.”

Eighty-five years later, the early-morning rain in the capital let up and the sun poked through the clouds just an hour before the Obama family hosted the 138th annual White House Easter egg roll on Monday—their eighth and final one.

“It is gonna be perfect weather,” first lady Michelle Obama told the crowd. “The sun is coming out.”

The first lady and President Obama descended the staircase to the egg-rolling station, where young children lined up to race, pushing wooden Easter eggs down the damp, squeaky grass using wooden spoons, a holiday activity that dates back to the 1800s.

The Easter egg roll is one of the oldest annual White House traditions. Like many of the nation’s quirkier customs, the exact origin of the egg roll is lost to history, according to the White House Historical Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1961. Some historians say first lady Dolley Madison first suggested the idea of a public egg roll, while others say informal egg rolls took place at the White House during the Lincoln administration. But the modern-day event owes its existence to a couple of grumpy congressmen.

In the 1870s, children would swarm the west lawn of the Capitol the day after Easter, when schools were closed. They rolled dyed, hard-boiled eggs down the grassy hill. Sometimes they’d roll themselves down. The informal celebrations did a number on the grass. Congress’s budget for landscaping and maintaining the grounds had already dried up for the year, so in 1876 William Steele Holman, a Democrat from Indiana, introduced legislation in the House that would “prevent any portion of the Capitol grounds and terraces from being used as play-grounds or otherwise, so far as may be necessary to protect the public property, turf, and grass from destruction and injury.” President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law, and Capitol police officers were given the task of kicking people out the following Easter. The rule was a literal manifestation of the “you kids, get off my lawn” reaction.

In 1877, rainy weather kept the kids off the Capitol lawn. But a year later, on a sunny Easter Sunday, a group of neighborhood children reportedly approached President Rutherford B. Hayes while he was out for his daily walk and asked him if they could use his “backyard” —the south lawn of the White House—to roll their eggs. That Monday, Hayes invited children to roam free on lawn and roll their little hearts out.

The annual affair grew from there. President Benjamin Harrison added music to the event in 1889 by inviting the United States Marine Corps Band. (This year, the band played songs from 21st-century phenomena Frozen and Pirates of the Caribbean.) Presidential pets made appearances, including first lady Grace Coolidge’s pet raccoon, Rebecca, in 1927. (This year, Bo and Sunny, the first family’s Portuguese water dogs, trotted around on the grounds.) In 1969, one of first lady Pat Nixon’s staffers put on a fluffy white rabbit costume, spawning the plush nightmare that is the official White House Easter bunny. In 1974, egg rolling was turned into a racing competition. The White House began giving participants souvenir eggs, stamped with the signatures of the president and the first lady, during the Reagan administration. Hard-boiled eggs were used at least until the Carter administration.

These days, the event is a star-studded affair that goes beyond egg-rolling. This year, attendees jammed out to musical performances by teenage singers and Sesame Street characters. Bear Grylls and Shonda Rhimes read books to kids. Celebrity chef José Andrés gave a cooking demonstration. Shaquille O’Neal played basketball with humans one-third his size. There was yoga and Soul Cycle. A pair of Stormtroopers wandered the grounds, waving to spectators.

White House Easter egg rolls have not always gone so smoothly. In 1885, children ruined the carpet in the East Room of Grover Cleveland’s White House, coating it in smashed egg and broken shells. Kids often became separated from their parents in the crowds. A photo from 1923 shows Edgar E. Porter, identified as a White House policeman, surrounded by lost children. At the 1929 egg roll, 71 children were lost and eventually reunited with their families. World wars led to the cancellation of the event between 1917 and 1920, and again between 1943 and 1945. Harry Truman nixed it in 1946 and 1947 as war-weary Americans rationed their food. Last year, children screamed when a small horde of bees interrupted the president’s traditional reading of “Where the Wild Things Are.”

The White House Easter egg roll draws thousands of people, who get tickets in a public lottery. About 35,000 people attended this year’s event, which the White House explicitly billed as an inclusive affair for “all Americans,” “no matter your race, your religion, or the composition of your family”—part of the Obama administration’s not-so-subtle campaign against the rhetoric that has come to define the 2016 presidential race on the Republican side.

“Today is a little bit bittersweet for us because this is the Obama administration’s last Easter egg roll,” Michelle Obama said at the start of the event Monday. Obama, standing behind her and next to the Easter Bunny on the south portico, brought his hand to his eye, feigning tears. He then broke into a wide smile.