A presidential Christmas
Rosemary Marsh (left) and Angela Bongiorno recount Thomas Jefferson’s influence in the White House.

IB/Finnegan

A presidential Christmas

Story By: LIZ FINNEGAN
12/17/2015


ISLIP TOWN—The historic Suffolk County-owned Sagtikos Manor in West Bay Shore was transformed into the White House last weekend. It’s where the Sagtikos Manor Historical Society once again hosted a house tour, except this time, in keeping with a new theme, several of the manor’s rooms were delightfully decorated for the holidays as they might have appeared during different presidential administrations. Docents in period dress provided a bit of history, nostalgia and entertainment as well.

Retired educator Celeste Topazio gave a history lesson in the section of the house dating to 1902 around the time Theodore Roosevelt assumed the top job after President McKinley was assassinated. With the help of “newsie” Aiden Pecorale, word of the new president provided the entrée for Topazio to begin describing a Roosevelt Christmas.

However, during that president’s first Christmas there, conservationist Roosevelt banned live trees in the White House until one of his six children managed to sneak one in with the help of White House staff. Decorated on the tree were miniature boxes of Animal Crackers, a snack that was launched that year, and the room was surrounded by a popular toy of the day, teddy bears. Topazio said the bears were named for the president, an avid hunter, after he protected a cub from being shot. The toy was a tremendous success and led to the formation of the Ideal Toy Company.

Moving into the Gardiner Parlor, Angela Bongiorno (Sally Hemmings) and Rosemary Marsh (Dolly Madison) described the holiday traditions of the Thomas Jefferson White House.

Dolly was the wife of Secretary of State James Madison at the time and served as hostess for the widower Jefferson. Hemmings was a servant and confidant of the third president. The docents explained that because Jefferson enjoyed French wine and cuisine, both were often a part of the holiday meal. Celebrations often included another of his loves, music.

The Van Cortland Parlor dates to around the time of the John Tyler administration (1841-1845). It was there docents Sarah Faye Meurer and Annmarie Zanchelli engaged in a skit involving idle gossip about Tyler’s much younger, somewhat flamboyant wife Julia Gardiner Tyler, the very first First Lady to ever be photographed.

In the Colonial Kitchen, located in the oldest section of the manor that dates to the Dutch settlers, Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) was highlighted as having shared many Dutch Christmas customs. Those customs included St. Nicholas, who made an appearance before anxious children awaiting his visit.

In the early 20th-century dining room, Maria Pecorale, Virginia Bonfiglio, Nancy Erikson and Kathleen Newill described the Woodrow Wilson years (1913-1921). Those turbulent years included WWI and the rise of the women’s suffrage movement, which ended with women winning the vote in 1920. During those years, a simple Christmas took place in the White House that included the use of paper ornaments.

In the mid-century kitchen of the manor, docents described the Kennedy administration celebrations, where First Lady Jackie Kennedy added a French chef to the White House staff and introduced a more elegant style of dining in the executive, mansion not only for Christmas, but all year long.