It was the card never sent. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, put in an order for 500 cards from Hallmark. They arrived, and the couple had begun signing them.
The Christmas card was 4 1/2- by 6 1/2-inches in size, with a color photograph of an 18th-century Neapolitan crèche that had been displayed in the East Room of the White House.
It was the first time a religious image was put on a White House Christmas card.
The Neapolitan creche went on display in the White House following 1961, when Loretta Hines Howard, a collector of religious figures, installed it in a niche in the East Room against a backdrop of gold curtains. The figures of men, women, angels, animals, kings and cherubs depicting the Nativity scene were arranged in a pyramid shape representing the evergreen tree.
The inside of the card featured an embossed seal of an American eagle holding an olive branch in one talon and arrows in the other. The message inside read, “With our wishes for a Blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year,” though some cards only wished the recipient a Happy New Year.
The presidential couple had signed 30 cards before taking a break to plan for an important trip to Dallas. This was of course the visit to Dallas that cost John F. Kennedy his life.
The Kennedys had intended to spend Christmas in Palm Beach, Florida. Instead, Jacqueline Kennedy mourned for her husband while trying to find a home for herself and her two children. In early December, she moved into a friend’s house in Georgetown with John Jr. and Caroline.
The cards were never sent, and have become a poignant reminder of a presidency cut short and a family traumatized. Some of the unsigned cards are available through Kennedy memorabilia sites, for almost $1,000 each, although they are often unavailable.
According to Reuters, less than two dozen of the 1963 dual-signed Kennedy cards were known to exist in 2007. One sold in 2006 at an auction for $45,000. It came from the estate of Kennedy’s personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, who some say destroyed most of the cards.
Also in 2007, during the George W. Bush presidency, one of the stops on the tour of White House holiday decorations was the collection of Christmas cards from previous presidents and first ladies. But noticeably missing was the card from 1963, out of respect for the Kennedys.
“They are the most rare pieces of presidential Christmas memorabilia today,” said Mary Seeley, author of Season’s Greetings From the White House in an interview with Reuters.
Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife did not want to send out cards at first, after Johnson took over as president. However, the State Department’s protocol officer insisted he carry on the tradition started by Calvin Coolidge in 1927.
A very simple white card with the presidential seal on the cover and a thin red strip on the bottom was quickly printed for the new Johnson administration. Seeley said they were mailed to foreign ministers, heads of governments, and the top ranking officials who attended Kennedy’s funeral.
Jacqueline Kennedy attempted to deal with the thousands of holiday cards and condolence letters sent to her by Americans.
She also carried through with a gift for the White House staff.
The art director for Hallmark Cards in Kansas City mailed 200 prints of a watercolor of the White House Green Room to Jackie Kennedy at the White House. The boxes arrived at a Washington D.C. airport less than 30 minutes before President John F. Kennedy died.
Jacqueline Kennedy gave the Green Room prints to the White House staff as a “continual reminder of the President.”
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of Tudor-era thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com