MARY AND RON SEELEY BUILT AMERICA’S LARGEST COLLECTION OF PRESIDENTIAL CHRISTMAS MEMORABILIA
By Rhonda Reinhart
Every day is Christmas for Mary and Ron Seeley. As owners of the nation’s most extensive collection of presidential Christmas memorabilia, the couple have seen pieces from their assemblage displayed at the White House on two occasions and exhibited at 10 presidential libraries. Including Christmas cards and gifts, as well as other holiday-themed artifacts, the Seeleys’ collection was decades in the making and features Christmas memorabilia dating back to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.
“The Seeley Family Presidential Christmas Collection has given both of us a platform to share our love for Christmas,” says Mary, who has authored two books about Christmas in the White House. “When we had the opportunity to display our complete Seeley Collection for the first time, we learned that, collectively, it portrayed an amazing story interwoven into the history of Christmas at the White House. It revealed a change in the culture, once Christmas became a federal holiday; the evolution of Christmas cards in America; that Christmas is unifying not political; that traditions are important; and the heart of the president revealed through his thoughtful gifts and deeds, as well as his spoken and written words.”
Now the Seeleys are giving other collectors a gift of their own, by offering their long-held assemblage in Heritage Auctions’ December 3-4 Seeley Family Presidential Christmas Collection Americana & Political Signature® Auction.
“It is incredibly rare to encounter a collection assembled with such careful focus and tenacity as the Seeley Family Presidential Christmas Collection,” says Heritage Auctions’ Brian Chanes. “Every piece tells a story, representing a snapshot into the sentiment and spirit of Christmas vis-à-vis the presidents, first families and the nation as a whole. The Seeleys are now passing the torch, providing collectors the opportunity to acquire these treasures that brought them so much joy and fulfillment over the past few decades.”
Here is just a sampling of the Seeleys’ Christmas-themed memorabilia available in the December auction.
This is the rarest known Christmas format ever signed by a president and first lady. According to Mary’s book Season’s Greetings From the White House, only 50 unsigned cards bearing the sentiment “With best wishes for a Happy New Year” were produced by Hallmark. The existence of this card was unknown, even by the Kennedy Library, until 1985.
The president and first lady presented these signed 8-by-10-inch photographs of them boarding “The Sacred Cow” (the Douglas VC-54C aircraft that was the predecessor of Air Force One) as their 1946 Christmas gifts to White House staff and Cabinet members. This photograph is inscribed to John W. Snyder and his wife, “To the Secretary of the Treasury and Mrs. Snyder, a Happy Christmas, 1946, Harry S. Truman, Bess W. Truman.”
This red cotton stocking hung on the White House mantel during all 12 years of the Roosevelt administration. According to Season’s Greetings From the White House, after the president’s annual spirited reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for his grandchildren on Christmas Eve, each child would file up to the president’s bedroom to hang their stockings on the mantel. No ordinary stockings, each one was custom-stitched by Mrs. Roosevelt’s maid, Lillian Rogers Parks. The first lady would fill them late that night and be the first one up Christmas morning.
This 17-by-14-inch print of the White House Green Room was reproduced from an original painting by Edward H. Lehman and is inscribed and signed by Jacqueline Kennedy to the artist, “For Edward Lehman, The President was the one who chose this picture to give to the White House staff this year. He loved it so much. Thank you for making him so proud of the Christmas presents he would give to those who made his life so happy these past two years. With deep appreciation, Jacqueline Kennedy. January 1964.”
Lehman was an artist and illustrator assigned by the Philadelphia Bulletin to sketch some rooms of the White House in advance of a CBS televised special on the first lady’s extensive renovations. When Mrs. Kennedy saw Lehman’s sketches in the newspaper, she called him to offer her admiration and obtain his original artwork. His art was so beloved by Mrs. Kennedy and the president that they used his Red Room painting as their 1962 Christmas gift print and, as this touching inscription written shortly after the president’s assassination indicates, distributed this Green Room print to White House staff for Christmas 1963.
This collection of 13 White House Christmas cards, many in their original transmittal envelopes, hail from 1933 to 1945. As Mary notes, even though there had been presidential Christmas greetings in the past, including these cards from Roosevelt’s administration, the sending of a White House Christmas card only became an official tradition during the Eisenhower administration. “[The tradition] was never interrupted when there was a world war, when there was an assassination of a president or 9/11 or anything,” she says. “It was always there and on time.”
To commemorate the end of the war in Europe, this multicolored lithograph printed May 8, 1945, proclaims “Sunday, May 13, 1945, to be a day of prayer.” With a lengthy inscription and large signature in the lower left margin, the president, whose birthday was May 8, has written, “This was a happy birthday for me. I hope this will be a happy Christmas for you. To Hon. John R. Steelman and Mrs. Steelman. 12/25/45.” Steelman served as the first assistant to the president of the United States (a position today known as the White House chief of staff) from 1946 through 1953.
This 1986 White House Christmas card, which includes the original White House envelope, features an autograph note signed by President Reagan, “Dear Jean & Bill, Thank you for your greeting, the photo & beautiful calendar & Very Merry Christmas & Happy New Year from both of us. Nancy & I never cease being surprised & grateful for all you’ve accomplished in the ‘old homestead.’ God bless you. Dutch.”
RHONDA REINHART is editor of Intelligent Collector.