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.