Raccoons, rabbits and Sean Spicer: The camp and contradictions of the White House Easter Egg Roll

I attended the White House Egg Roll in 1988. I have vague memories of standing in a long line of children and grownups waiting to get onto the packed White House grounds. After a brief encounter with a fuzzy Easter bunny, I made a frantic timed jaunt through a stack of hay bales to find my souvenir Easter Egg, signed by George B. Was it the current vice president George Bush senior, my mom eagerly asked the attendant, who squinted at it. No, I think it’s George Burns, they replied. My mother recently sent me that George B— signed egg, wooden and painted turquoise, with the event’s details on it — while I was in the final throes of editing my new book, “Egg.

Nothing could be more American than the White House Egg Roll. And yet, like the egg itself — simultaneously alive and not-alive — it offers a slate of contradictions. The United States is supposed to preserve the distinction between church and state, yet we have an Easter Egg Roll on government property. Dig below the event’s thin veneer of Christianity and you’ll find a pagan springtime ritual. We value equality, and yet Black children could not attend the event until the 1950s. 

But let’s go back a bit and tackle the egg-roll’s complexity, starting with its deep historical origins.

As an event, egg rolls are ancient. To roll an egg, that is, to use a long-handled spoon to propel an egg down a slope or along a field in a race, one first needs an egg. And for most of human history this meant springtime, since the reproductive cycle of chickens is sensitive to light, and their laying rate picks up in the spring. Hard boiling eggs and coating them in wax to preserve them just makes sense. Scraping designs into the wax was among the first egg decoration. There are numerous playful egg traditions, including egg tosses, egg hunts, egg dancing, egg jousting or jarping (tap two together and see who wins), dressing as witches and trick or treating for eggs, performing folk plays in exchange for eggs, and of course, decorating eggs. As with egg rolls, these began as pagan practices celebrating the arrival of spring and the growing season. In “An Egg at Easter” (1971), Venetia Newall speculates that egg rolls likely began as a charm to fertilize the earth, ensuring a good harvest, and a way to enhance human fertility. 

Eventually, Christianity came along, and appropriated the tradition into its own symbolism. In the case of the egg roll—great fun, especially in a world before rubber balls–the egg rolling down the field came to represent the stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning. The activity, widespread across Europe and Russia, often took place on a town-appointed hill. It tended to take place the Monday after Easter, though in some locations it occurred on Fat Tuesday, just before the beginning of Lent. And according to British tradition, witches could use the empty shells as boats, so kids enjoyed smashing them to smithereens.  As the mother of a five-year-old, I can only wonder, did they really need a reason?

Settlers brought their egg-rolling traditions with them to the United States, including to Washington DC. It’s hard to say who, exactly, held the first egg roll. Some historians note that Dolly Madison suggested the idea of a public egg roll in the early 1800s, and the first family hosted informal egg rolls dating back to the time of Abraham Lincoln. However, the first official egg roll required an act of congress.  The area’s children used to roll eggs on a gentle slope on the West Lawn of the Capitol each year. Their foot traffic, and the many broken eggshells and hard-boiled eggs (not to mention, I suspect, the rank odor), damaged the landscape. With a tight landscape budget, Congress took particular notice after the 1876 egg roll, and passed a law banning its grounds from being used as a playground for children. In typical Washington fashion, what had been Congress’s problem soon became the president’s.

In 1878, either a gang of mad children rushed down the road to the White House, or President Rutherford B. Hayes opened the gates and invited the children onto the South Lawn to roll eggs. Almost every spring since, barring war or pandemic, hijinks have ensued.

The first year after the cancellation, it rained and no one felt up to rolling eggs. But in 1878, either a gang of mad children rushed down the road to the White House, or President Rutherford B. Hayes opened the gates and invited the children onto the South Lawn to roll eggs. Almost every spring since, barring war or pandemic, hijinks have ensued. 

In 1885, the kids lobbied for an audience with Grover Cleveland, who received them in the East Room. He was reportedly charmed, although they promptly trashed the carpet with their hard-boiled eggs. Whether indoors or outdoors, the hard-boiled eggs presented an issue. As eggs are cooked, and especially, over cooked, the yolk releases iron which joins up with hydrogen and sulfur from the white to produce the notoriously pungent chemical hydrogen sulfide. If you’ve over-boiled your eggs, this reaction forms a green ring around the yolk; it smells distinctly “eggy,” or as my kiddo informs me, “farty.” According to one account, the sulfurous stank emanating from the White House lawn polluted the air for about three-square miles

First Lady Lou Hoover tried to solve the problem in 1929 by focusing the event on folk dancing, including maypole, Swedish, English, and Native American dances, all performed by Girl Scouts. She included the latter, perhaps, in homage to Charles Curtis, Hoover’s vice president and the first person of Native American heritage to reach this high echelon of executive office. Even though the dancing left less room for eggs, the increasing crowds on the South Lawn—about 47,000 people at Hoover’s event—took their toll. Officials limited attendance with the restriction that grown people were only permitted “when accompanied by a child.” Naturally, some enterprising little rascals began charging unrelated randos a fee to accompany them to the event. Ah, Washington, a town where even the children sell access to the White House! The Secret Service was eventually called in to break up the racket by the late 1930s. 

Although several photographs from the 1890s show Black and white children at the egg roll together, segregation remained the general rule. Black families weren’t invited, and gathered instead at the National Zoo’s Easter event on Lion-Tiger hill instead, which is still a popular outing. In 1953, the White House event returned after a 12-year hiatus taken due to World War II, post-war food restrictions, and South Lawn construction. At that egg roll, Mamie Eisenhower noticed Black children gathering at the gates to the event and gazing longingly at the fun. She officially desegregated the event the following year. Now, tickets are assigned by lottery. 

Over the years, different presidents and first ladies have put their own spin on the event. Benjamin Harrison added some peppy music with Sousa conducting the band known as the “President’s Own.” In 1926, someone sent a live racoon to the White House, with the idea that the first family could have it for dinner. Instead, Grace Coolidge named it Rebecca, and kept it as a pet. She met kiddos at the 1927 Egg Roll. Much later, the Carters set up a petting zoo, including a 1,200-pound steer. 

 It was Pat Nixon who gave the egg roll two of its most vital attributes. She learned the hard way why egg hunts involving real eggs were a bad idea—an egg undiscovered is fragrant indeed. Plastic eggs have become the norm since.

But it was Pat Nixon who gave the egg roll two of its most vital attributes. She learned the hard way why egg hunts involving real eggs were a bad idea—an egg undiscovered is fragrant indeed. Plastic eggs have become the norm since. Nixon also introduced the custom of Easter drag—a White House staffer in a bunny suit. According to the White House Archives of George W. Bush, “Strict guidelines prohibit the bunny from being seen without his costume head, but the identity of the staffer inside is revealed every once in a while.”

Apparently, Ursula Meese, wife of President Reagan’s attorney general Edwin, enjoyed playing the part and did so for six egg rolls, earning the nickname “The Meester Bunny.” During Bush Jr.’s administration, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer played the part, and told The Wrap, “It gets very hot.” A high-level official, dressed up like a furry, anonymized, interacting with children. What could be campier than that?

Nancy Reagan also introduced the wooden eggs signed by celebrities, and soon after a small future writer on eggs attended the White House Easter Egg roll with her mother. She said “hi” to a tall furry bunny and was funneled through a bunch of hay bales to find the wooden egg she’d take home with her. 

My souvenir wooden Easter egg has many meanings written atop it — paganism, Christianity, and most of all, contradiction. In a secular democracy, it’s strange that, to paraphrase Orwell, some religions are more equal than others. In this time, when Republicans are banning drag shows (whatever happened to the inalienable right to pursue happiness?), can the White House Easter bunny remain? With abortion no longer legal federally, will the egg roll become a chick roll?

Still, most of all, The White House Easter Egg Roll is the essence of the United States.  If we the people want to march into the White House and grind stinky eggs into the carpet, we have that right, because the president’s house is the people’s house, and as voters we are supposed to make—so far—him dance to our tunes. We demand, if not bread and circuses, then true American camp—a racoon-and-toy-pony show, a hunt for treasure, and White House officials dragged up to entertain our children. 

In this tumultuous time, perhaps we need the egg roll more than ever, not for its Christian symbolism, but for its pagan origins. At this point in history, we really need to ritually fertilize our fields with a little hope. 

If you liked this essay, consider picking up Lizzie Stark’s book, “Egg: A Dozen Ovatures.”

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