VINTON–Each Easter Monday the White House hosts the White House Easter Egg Roll. The First Family will mark 138 years of the annual tradition on March 28, joined by 35,000 children and their families.
Admission to the event is by chance. There is a lottery system in place (winners get six free tickets)—unless you know someone with connections. That’s how several members of Jim and Judy Cunningham’s family have been able to attend the celebration. (The Cunninghams are from Vinton.)
Their son Zeph was employed by the National Park Service for many years and as a result several of their grandchildren have had the opportunity to experience the once in a lifetime event. Even though granddaughter Riley is still a preschooler, she definitely remembers meeting Smokey Bear on the White House lawn.
Tradition has it that the Egg Roll was started by Dolley Madison in 1814 on the grounds of the Capitol Building. Children would roll decorated hard-boiled eggs and themselves down the hills at the Capitol.
Members of Congress noticed that the egg rolling was taking its toll on the grounds. Their budget was not adequate to landscape and maintain the grounds of the Capitol so they passed the Turf Protection Law to take effect in 1877 forbidding the Capitol grounds to be used as a children’s playground.
In 1878, it is said that President Rutherford B. Hayes was taking his daily stroll and was approached by some children who asked if they could instead roll eggs on the South Lawn of the White House. He issued an official order that any children who arrived at the White House on Easter Monday would be allowed to roll their Easter eggs and so the tradition began.
Successive Presidents have continued the event. The Egg Roll has only been cancelled because of inclement weather and during World War I and World War II. During those war years, egg rollers were spotted at the Washington Monument and at the National Zoo.
Over the years many activities have been added to the event. In the early years there was “Egg Croquet” and “Toss and Catch.” John Philip Sousa and “The President’s Own” Marine Band performed for the assembled crowd in 1889.
There have been circuses and petting zoos, exhibits of antique cars, Broadway shows, and giant balloons. In 1954 First Lady Mamie Eisenhower integrated the event for the first time.
There is always an official White House Easter Bunny, first introduced by Pat Nixon in 1969. In 1974 the egg rolling race was formalized with spoons borrowed from the White House kitchen.
Generally each year the President and First Lady greet their guests. There are entertainers, sports figures, and members of government.
Celebrities appear on the Storytime Stage to read books to the children. President Obama seems to favor “Where the Wild Things Are” having read it on more than one occasion. Miss America has read to the crowd along with the First Lady and even their daughters. Race car driver Danica Patrick read “Go, Dog, Go!” one year.
Children can play basketball and tennis on the White House courts. There are many activity stations. This year there will be cooking demonstrations and a White House Fun Run in honor of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative. There is a different theme each year. This year’s is “Let’s Celebrate.”
Since the National Park Service is in charge, Smokey the Bear usually makes an appearance.
The party is meant for children ages 13 and under and their families. There are strict security measures in place to enter the grounds and restrictions on what the participants can take in with them.
At the end of the day-long event, egg rollers ages 13 and under receive a special presidential wooden egg complete with the signatures of the President and his wife. The souvenir eggs became part of the tradition in 1981, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan hosted a hunt for wooden eggs which had the signatures of actors, actresses, famous politicians, and athletes. The design changes each year.
The wooden eggs can even be ordered from the National Park Foundation charity which benefits America’s national parks.