[Courtesy of the Library of Congress]
Slowly, silently, the White House gates opened. In dashed a group of small boys. Each carried a basket of brightly-colored Easter eggs. As they rushed across the freshly clipped grass of the South Lawn, their numbers multiplied. Out of nowhere, hordes of laughing, giggling children - some in dainty pinafores, others in tattered rags - flooded the White House lawn. Moments later, the grounds were alive with streams of color as thousands of Easter eggs rolled and bounced down the slopes. Behind them came hundreds of children, running, tumbling, screaming, and laughing all the way to the bottom. From inside the White House, President Rutherford B. Hayes and the First Lady watched with delight.
Washington's children always had claimed the grounds around the halls of government as their own on Easter Monday. Even before the Civil War, thousands of little ones gathered on the lawns of the U.S. Capitol to roll, race, toss, chase, and eat gaily-painted eggs. At noon government workers, nannies, and nurses came with picnic lunches to watch the fun. The afternoon was spent playing tag, croquet, skipping rope, racing, and floating eggshells. Only when the sun set did the celebration end.
But on Easter Monday in 1876, Congressmen were horrified to find the Capitol rotunda filled with screaming children, broken eggshells, and discarded sandwiches. Determined to return dignity to the hallowed halls, they signed a bill into law forbidding any such future events on the Capitol grounds. But even an act of Congress could not prevent the children of Washington from enjoying their East Egg Roll.
The following year, just before Easter, a boy bravely approached President Hayes and asked, "Are you going to let us roll eggs in your yard?" Unfamiliar with the event, Hayes answered, "I don't know, I'll have to see about that." When the White House staff explained the tradition, the President good-naturedly ordered the gates left unlocked on Easter Monday. Hidden from view, the Hayeses and their staff watched with amusement as children slipped through the gates to roll eggs on the South Lawn. The next year, the Easter Egg Roll became an official White House celebration and has remained so ever since.
Today the staff prepares 10,000 eggs for this unique event hosted by the First Lady, with each adding her personal touch to the 125-year-old tradition. Mrs. Nixon brought the Easter Bunny. Betty Ford introduced eggs decorated in the Ukrainian style. Rosalyn Carter presented souvenir eggs. Nancy Reagan autographed wooden eggs, and Hillary Clinton's featured the paw print of Socks the cat. More importantly, the White House Easter Egg Roll remains a fun-filled day especially for children - just as it did in President Hayes' time.