The White House didn't always celebrate Hanukkah — here's how the tradition began

Alex Wong/Getty ImagesPresident Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama watch as the menorah is lit at the White House Hanukkah party in 2013.
  • Christmas celebrations at the White House date back to 1800, but Hanukkah wasn’t acknowledged until much later.
  • President Jimmy Carter was the first president to recognise Hanukkah with a menorah lighting in 1979.
  • The first official White House Hanukkah party took place in 2001, hosted by President George W. Bush.
  • There are now two official Hanukkah receptions, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, plus a National Menorah Lighting outside the White House.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The White House hasn’t always marked the Festival of Lights with menorah lightings and musical performances.

Celebrating Hanukkah at the White House is a fairly recent development in US history. President Jimmy Carter was the first president to light a menorah in 1979, and the first official White House Hanukkah party didn’t take place until 2001.

US presidents now host two Hanukkah receptions every year, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. There’s also an annual National Menorah Lighting on the lawn of the White House.

Here’s how Hanukkah celebrations at the White House came to be.


Christmas celebrations at the White House date back to 1800, but Hanukkah wasn’t acknowledged until much later.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesPresident Calvin Coolidge and first lady Grace Coolidge stand in front of the national Christmas tree.

President John Adams hosted the first White House Christmas party in December 1800, and President Calvin Coolidge held the first National Christmas Tree lighting in 1923. Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of choosing a theme for the White House Christmas decorations in 1961.


President Jimmy Carter was the first president to recognise Hanukkah with a menorah lighting in 1979.

White House PhotoPresident Jimmy Carter lights a menorah at the White House in 1979.

The menorah lighting was held on the Ellipse, a lawn south of the White House.

The secretary of the interior under Carter initially refused to issue a permit for a menorah on the White House lawn, citing the First Amendment, according to the Washington Post. But Stu Eizenstat, one of Carter’s advisers, argued that the National Christmas Tree’s permit should also be denied on the same grounds, and the event was allowed to proceed.

Since then, every US president has marked Hanukkah in one way or another.


A delegation of rabbis brought President Ronald Reagan a menorah during a Hanukkah visit in 1984.

Jean-Louis Atlan/Sygma via Getty ImagesRonald Reagan receiving Rabbis at the White House on Hanukkah in 1984.

Reagan kept in touch with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, leader of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, throughout his presidency, even declaring his 80th birthday a National Day of Reflection.


President George Bush and first lady Barbara Bush learned to play dreidel at the White House in 1990.

Barry L. Thumma/APPresident George H. W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush participate in a Hanukkah celebration by playing the children’s holiday game of dreidel at the White House in 1990.

The president invited children to light Hanukkah candles and play dreidel at the Old Executive Building, which sits adjacent to the White House.


President Bill Clinton also celebrated Hanukkah by hosting groups of children in the Oval Office.

Greg Gibson/APPresident Clinton and Cantor Laura Croen watch as children spin dreidels during a Menorah lighting ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in 1996.

Children from local schools and synagogues were welcomed into the Oval Office to light the menorah and play dreidel with Clinton.


President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush hosted the first White House Hanukkah party in 2001. It was the first time a menorah lighting was held in the White House residence.

Manny Ceneta/Getty ImagesPresident George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush watch 8-year-old Talia Lefkowitz light the menorah in celebration of the second day of the Hanukkah in 2001.

The Bushes invited members of their staff and their children to participate in the ceremony. The menorah was lit in the Booksellers room on the ground floor, and a kosher buffet was served upstairs, the New York Times reported.

“Tonight, for the first time in American history, the Hanukkah menorah will be lit at the White House residence,” Bush said at the ceremony. “It’s a symbol that this house may be a temporary home for Laura and me, but it’s the people’s house, and it belongs to people of all faiths.”


The White House kitchen was made kosher for the occasion starting in 2005.

Shealah Craighead/White House via Getty ImagesFirst lady Laura Bush with rabbis and the White House kitchen staff as they make the White House kitchen kosher in 2005.

Making the White House kitchen kosher involves Saran wrap, tin foil, and vats of boiling water to cover and purify non-kosher surfaces. The chefs use only certified kosher ingredients.

Matt Nosanchuk served as the White House’s associate director of public engagement and liaison to the American Jewish community during Obama’s second term. He told Insider that there used to be separate tables for kosher and non-kosher food at Bush’s Hanukkah parties, but one year the labels were accidentally switched.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a Chabad rabbi in Washington, DC, who works closely with the White House staff to prepare kosher food, suggested making the entire reception kosher to avoid confusion in the future.

“Apparently President Bush said, ‘Do whatever you need to do, it’s fine,’ and Rabbi Shemtov was like, ‘Well, you’re going to have to stay out of the kitchen for 24 hours before the party,'” Nosanchuk said.


Bush also began inviting different Jewish choirs and a cappella groups to perform at the event.

LUKE FRAZZA/AFP via Getty ImagesPresident George W. Bush poses with members of the Kol Zimra a cappella choir in 2004.

The Kol Zimra a cappella choir performed at a menorah lighting ceremony before the White House Hanukkah reception in 2004.


President Barack Obama continued hosting the White House Hanukkah party every year. In 2013, the party was split into two receptions — one in the afternoon, and one in the evening.

Alex Wong/Getty ImagesLighting the menorah at one of the White House’s Hanukkah receptions in 2013.

“Given how crowded the previous parties had become, they decided to have two,” Nosanchuk said.

The two identical receptions are hosted on the same day so that the White House kitchen only has to be made kosher once.


That was also the year Thanksgiving coincided with Hanukkah. Obama was presented with a turkey-shaped menorah known as a “menurkey.”

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty ImagesPresident Barack Obama holds a ‘menurkey,’ a combination of a menorah and turkey.

In 2013, then-10-year-old Asher Weintraub invented a “menurkey,” a menorah in the shape of a turkey. He raised over $US48,000 on Kickstarter to produce and sell them.

“Of course, I said we gotta invite this kid to the White House Hanukkah party,” Nosanchuk said. “We didn’t use the menurkey onstage, but we made sure the kid was up front on the rope line so that he could say hello to President Obama and present him with a menurkey. And President Obama loved the menurkey.”


Obama continued the tradition of inviting college and professional a cappella groups to sing at the event.

Courtesy of Mike BoxerMike Boxer (back row, second from the right) and fellow members of Jewish a cappella group Six13 with the Obamas in 2016.

Mike Boxer performed with Jewish a cappella group Six13 at the White House Hanukkah reception in 2016. He told Insider the performers usually sing in the foyer outside the party for about an hour, welcoming guests as they enter, and then have a private audience with the president and first lady.

Before meeting the Obamas, Boxer and his group were told to prepare 45 seconds of a song to perform for them. They chose a snippet from “A Hamilton Chanukah,” a remix of songs from the Broadway musical “Hamilton” rewritten with Hanukkah-themed lyrics.

Boxer said that their private concert featured some unexpected guests.

“We look over, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor are peering through the door,” he said. “Barack Obama goes, ‘Come in, come in.’ One of them said, ‘I love this stuff.'”


Notable American Jewish leaders and rabbis were also invited to deliver remarks at the two ceremonies.

ZACH GIBSON/AFP via Getty ImagesRabbi Rachel Isaacs speaks during a White House Hanukkah reception in 2016.

In his public engagement role at the White House, Nosanchuk was in charge of the Hanukkah reception guest list. Every year, the list was built from scratch to include as many new people as possible.

“I went out of my way to invite people who had never been before, who had done interesting and important and valuable work in the Jewish community or in their broader community,” he said. “There were a wide array of constituencies and groups and individuals who we wanted to engage with and touch during these holiday receptions. The Hanukkah receptions were a subset of that larger group.”


Mordechai Levovitz attended the White House Hanukkah party twice during Obama’s presidency, and was impressed with the event’s broad representation of the Jewish community.

Courtesy of Mordechai LevovitzMordechai Levovitz, founder of the nonprofit Jewish Queer Youth, at the White House Hanukkah party in 2015.

Levovitz is the founder of Jewish Queer Youth, an nonprofit serving LGBTQ+ youth from Orthodox, Hasidic, and Sephardic homes. He was invited as a representative of the Jewish LGBTQ+ community, along with other leaders of Jewish LGBTQ+ organisations.

“It was really nice to see great LGBTQ representation there,” he said of the Hanukkah parties he attended. “I felt seen. I saw leaders of every Jewish LGBTQ organisation there, and they saw me.”

He told Insider that the White House knows how to throw a good Hanukkah party.

“Any Orthodox Jew knows that kosher food can really go either way, especially kosher catering. This caterer does an amazing job,” he said. “There’s a room with a huge smorgasbord of food, and then there’s a cutting board on the side giving out the lamb chops, and that’s where the line is. They are delicious.”


President Donald Trump has continued hosting Hanukkah receptions at the White House.

Olivier Douliery/Getty ImagesArabella Kushner lights the menorah as Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump look on during a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House in 2017.

Arabella Kushner, the president’s granddaughter, lit the menorah in 2017 with her parents, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

Ivanka Trump converted to Orthodox Judaism before marrying Kushner in 2009.


Outside the White House, menorah lightings are still held on the Ellipse, and the event has continued to grow in scale.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty ImagesThe annual national Hanukkah menorah lighting ceremony at the White House Ellipse in 2010.

The National Menorah is now a 30-foot-tall structure that requires a lift from a cherry picker to light, and the event is broadcast on C-SPAN.

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