Inside The First Official Hanukkah Celebration At The White House

The United States was a melting pot of cultures and traditions even before becoming an official country in the late 1700s. A country of English, Dutch, French, and Spanish settlers (to name a few) in the eastern part of the U.S. has grown to include immigrants from all over the world. Today, Americans celebrate holidays from multiple religions and cultures like Chinese New Year and Día de los Muertos along with uniquely North American occasions like Thanksgiving.

Some of the most widely-celebrated holidays occur in December. While Christmas is the most common, Hanukkah is prominent as well and just as deeply rooted in tradition. It's an an eight-day celebration — hence the eight candles on the menorah – celebrated by followers of Judaism. There are somewhere between five and 10 million Jewish people in the U.S. (per World Population Review). Despite the lengthy history of Jewish people in the U.S., celebrating Hanukkah at the White House is a rather new tradition.

President Jimmy Carter helped light a menorah in 1979

All 46 presidents of the United States have identified themselves as part of a Christian denomination. This makes Christmas at the White House nearly as old as the White House itself. The first president to take part in a Hanukkah celebration was President Jimmy Carter in 1979. He lit one of the candles on a menorah at Lafayette Park in Washington D.C. Presidents Ronald Regan and George H.W. Bush met with local members of Jewish communities as well (per White House History).

Insider explains that the first official celebration of Hanukkah at the White House occurred in 2001 with President George W. Bush. "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," he stated. The menorah used for the 2001 celebration was from Ukraine and had survived the Holocaust of the 1930s and 40s. It was crafted over 100 years before arriving at the White House. Bush described Hanukkah as a celebration of "peace and lightness" in the wake of fears surrounding the September 11th terrorist attacks that had occurred just a few months before the holiday season.

Presidents have used menorahs from multiple locations

Presidents often borrow menorahs with historical significance similar to the one used by President George W. Bush. In 2010, President Barack Obama lit one that survived the floods from Hurricane Katrina. In 2013, the Obamas displayed a menorah from the Jewish Museum in Prague (per White House History).

Support from those outside of the Jewish community has become more poignant as anti-Semitism still exists in the 21st century. Kanye West's October 2022 tweets against Jewish people sent shockwaves throughout the world, costing him around $2 billion in brand deals. In 2021, German police arrested four people after one of the suspects posted online that he was planning an attack on a synagogue (per France24).

Most members of the 116th Congress are Protestant. However, The Pew Research Center states that there are 34 Jewish representatives, including Senate majority leader Charles "Chuck" Schumer. Religious diversity in Congress has steadily increased since the 1960s.