The White House. The evening of Wednesday, November 20, 1963. It was one of those legendary Kennedy parties. The occasion was a reception in the East Room for the federal judiciary, including the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Although John and Jacqueline Kennedy did not know it, this was also their last night together in the presidential mansion.
Jacqueline Kennedy looked forward to their annual holiday activities. They expected to spend Thanksgiving—November 28—at the Kennedy family compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Then they planned to spend a family Christmas in Palm Beach, Florida, visiting with the president’s siblings and parents there. But first they would fly to Texas on November 21, for a two-day campaign swing through five cities, including Dallas.
Before they departed, John and Jacqueline Kennedy had already selected and ordered their annual Christmas card: a 4 1/2- by 6 1/2-inch Hallmark card, custom made for them, bearing a color photograph of an 18th-century Neapolitan crèche that had been displayed in the East Room of the White House each year they had lived there. 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 simply wished the recipient a Happy New Year. The Kennedys had signed the first handful of the cards, fewer than 75, at their leisure. There would be plenty of time to sign the rest of the cards—which they planned to send out to many friends, supporters and heads of state—when they returned from Texas.
The Christmas cards—one of which now resides in the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History—were never mailed.
For Jacqueline Kennedy, it was a tragic Christmas season and the beginning of a long, dark time. She should have been supervising the elaborate decoration of the White House and hosting festive receptions and planning the Christmas pageant that her daughter, Caroline, would participate in. Instead she was packing her belongings and her children’s toys in preparation for leaving the White House. On Friday, December 6, two weeks after the assassination, she moved out of the presidential mansion whose historic preservation she had so lovingly supervised.
She sought refuge in her old neighborhood, Georgetown. Having spent only two Christmas seasons in the White House, she was now living with her children in a strange and empty house, vacated by friends so that she could move in. Although Jackie sent out no cards, an adoring and mourning public sent her cards and condolence letters, more than 800,000 of them.
She did not, however, forget the handful of people who had meant the most to her and the president. For them, she selected special Christmas gifts—books, photos, personal mementos. To Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, she gave a specially bound copy of the book Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States from George Washington 1789 to John F. Kennedy 1961.
Jackie inscribed it “For Robert McNamara—The President was going to give you this for Christmas—Please accept it now from me—With my devotion always for all you did for Jack. Jackie, December 1963.”
To Dave Powers, part of the “Irish Mafia” and an aide throughout Kennedy’s political life, she inscribed another copy of the same book: “With my devotion always for all you did to give Jack so many happy hours. You and I will miss him most. Jackie.”
She also gave Powers a framed set of three black-and-white images of Powers playing with her son John Jr. She inscribed the mat around the photograph: “For Dave Powers—Who gave the President so many of his happiest hours—and who will now do the same for his son, John Jr. With my devotion always—for your devotion to Jack/Jackie, Christmas, 1963.”
The holiday card that was never sent survives as a reminder of the Christmas that John and Jackie Kennedy never celebrated, and remains an American treasure, a fragile relic of the all too “brief shining moment.”