Closer Readings Commentary

Rites of Spring in the Nation’s Capital

Look at the cherry blossoms!
Their color and scent fall with them,
Are gone forever,
Yet mindless
The spring comes again.
— Japanese poet Ikkyū (休宗純1394–1481)

Touring the Capital and the White House

Planning to visit the U.S. Capital in person this spring? If so, the official National Park Service app for the National Mall and memorial parks can be used to explore 70 of the most cherished cultural and historical sites in the United States—from the Lincoln Memorial to the White House. The National Park Service also offers several maps to help you navigate your way around the monuments and memorials in Washington, D.C.

Not traveling this year, but interested in taking a virtual tour of the capital's sites from home? Here are a few resources to help. The National Park Service’s Icons of the Nation’s Capital, Photos & Multimedia and History and Culture offer images and background to learn about the National Mall and memorial parks. The Architect of the Capitol website contains an interactive multimedia gallery including a virtual tour through the Architect’s Virtual Capitol, where students can discover, explore, and learn about the features and history within the 274 acres of grounds that provide the setting for the U.S. Capitol Building. EDSITEment’s A Landmark Lesson: The United States Capitol Building, using primary sources, challenges students to investigate what features, presented as “mysteries,” make the U.S. Capitol symbolically important.

White House in-person tours are available to visiting groups and must be arranged a few months ahead of time through your member of Congress. Another way to discover the history and view the art in “The People’s House” is to take a virtual tour of different sections:

EDSITEment’s Picturing First Families makes virtual excursions to the National Portrait Gallery, the White House, and the Library of Congress, with a side trip to the University of Virginia, to gather clues from artwork about America's original first families and their lives and periods in American history. The Women in the White House contains activities to learn about the valuable contributions first ladies have made to American society. From the White House of Yesterday to the White House of Today takes a close look at the building’s design and some of the changes it has undergone over the years. What Happens in the White House considers how the presidential residence has functioned in recent times and throughout our nation's history.

Viewing the Cherry Blossoms

Cherry trees on Mall[Cherry trees along the Tidal Basin with Japanese lantern (placed in the park in 1954). Washington, D.C. Photo: Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.]

The springtime tradition of viewing cherry blossoms has been an annual ritual in Japan for over a thousand years. National Center for Families Learning website, Wonderopolis, poses the question, What are Sakura? to introduce students to the Japanese term for flowering cherry trees. As an iconic reflection of their cultural values, the cherry blossoms are prized by Japanese for their beauty and simplicity. In the Buddhist tradition, the fragility and brevity of the blossoming trees symbolize the ephemeral nature of life. The Japanese annual practice of hanami (picnicking under the cherry trees once they come into bloom) has been adopted in America. Each year in early spring, 1.5 million visitors make the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., for the National Cherry Blossom Festival to view the spectacle and participate in this national cultural event.

This national ritual began over one hundred years ago, in 1912, when the United States received a gift of 3,020 cherry trees from Japan in celebration of the nations’ then-growing friendship. The National Park Service provides a detailed timeline to trace the fascinating history of this cultural exchange. March 27, 1912, the two Yoshino cherry trees were planted on the northern bank of the Potomac River Tidal Basin, by First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese ambassador. Additional cherry trees were then placed along the shoreline near the site of the future Jefferson Memorial and on the grounds of the White House. A number of these original trees have survived and may be viewed today!

In 1965, the Japanese government contributed an additional 3,800 cherry trees to the United States. On that occasion First Lady, “Lady Bird” Johnson, and the Japanese ambassador's wife, Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi, presided over a ceremonial reenactment by planting new trees on the grounds of the Washington Monument. Over the years, many of the first ladies have taken part in the annual cherry blossom festivities.

Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers picks up the topic cherry trees with a sampling of historical articles. “Japanese Cherries Adorn Park Drive” from The Washington Times, April 6, 1913, describes the cherry trees along the Tidal Basin as “[f]ragrantly beautiful and riotous with spring!” This same article could be penned today—a reflection of the timeless quality of sakura: “The blossoms, however, are as beautiful now as they will be in years to come and make the observer forget the shape of the tree . . . the blooms are a delicate pink shading almost to white in some instances, Each cluster is made up of dozens of individual blossoms which are formed somewhat like the wild rose.”

The Easter Egg Roll at the White House

Mrs. Coolidge at egg roll[Mrs. Coolidge exhibits her pet raccoon (Rebecca) to crowds of children gathered for Easter egg-rolling April 18, 1927. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.]

Another spring ritual unique to the nation’s capital is the annual White House Easter Egg Roll. This public event traditionally takes place on the South Lawn of the White House on Easter Monday. The origins of this event are murky. There is a legend that First Lady Dolley Madison originated the practice of holding a public egg roll, but there is essentially no evidence to support that claim. What is known is that by the early 1870s, Washingtonians began to congregate on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on the day after Easter to celebrate with picnics. When children began rolling dyed hard-boiled eggs down the slope, a concern for the landscape led Congress to enact the “Turf Protection Law,” a bill that banned the practice.

As the story goes, on Easter Monday in 1878, the egg rollers were ejected from the Capitol ground by Capitol Hill police, so they headed up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House in the hope that their games would be permitted there. President Hayes instructed his guards to let the youngsters through the gates, and thus the tradition of egg rolling at the White House was born. According to a report in the Evening Star (Mar. 29, 1880, p. 4), by 1880 eager egg-rollers had taken “absolute possession of the grounds south of the White House.” (The National Archives provides a detailed history of the evolution of this event, filled with interesting anecdotes in a two-part article, “With Easter Monday You Get Egg Roll at the White House”: Part I and Part II.)

The White House Egg Roll is a special holiday event that takes on different features with every administration. Over the years, many first ladies as well as White House first children and pets (including “Rebecca, First-Raccoon” pictured above) have left their unique stamp on the event. The National First Ladies Library offers a five-part series of articles on First Ladies and the White House Easter Egg-Roll, with back stories on how first families have participated or opted out of the event over the years. On occasion, the annual egg roll tradition was suspended due to wartime necessity or relocated due to renovation. The PBS NewsHour offers a photo essay of the White House Easter Egg Roll throughout history. The White House has just announced it will again play host for this traditional event this year. The 139th White House Easter Egg Roll festivities will take place April 17, 2017.