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The White House Easter Egg Roll exists because Congress banned fun

The White House Easter Egg roll in 2013.
The White House Easter Egg roll in 2013.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Today the White House will hold the annual Easter egg roll. Kids will roll their eggs along the lawn, hunt for eggs, and enjoy other fun activities. It's a benign, heartwarming event.

So where did this lovable tradition come from? It all started when Congress made kids get off its lawn.

Congress banned the Capitol Hill Easter Egg Roll in 1876

The Easter egg roll goes back a long time — some say Dolley Madison began the tradition, though that's probably just legend. There are reports of various egg rolls occurring throughout the mid-1800s, but by the 1870s, there weren't a lot of places for kids to have fun in Washington, DC. The city was very much under construction — the Washington Monument had been left half-finished for 23 years — and contained a lot of dirt and mud.

That led a lot of kids to play near Capitol Hill. The only problem? Their presence uprooted some of the tender grass that was just starting to grow near the Capitol Building. The annual Easter egg rolls they held there upset the national landscaping.

So on April 21, 1876, Congress passed the Turf Protection Law, which banned Easter egg rolls on Capitol Hill. In 1877, bad weather kept the Easter egg roll from happening, and 1878 didn't look much better. In the days leading up to Easter, the Washington Post warned kids not to roll their eggs on the Capitol's lawn or they'd encounter the large Capitol police force:

Egg rolling at the capitol.

Egg rolling: not allowed. (Archival newspaper in the Washington Post)

Things looked bleak for the Easter tradition until the president stepped in.

How Rutherford B. Hayes saved the Easter egg roll

Rutherford B. Hayes Stock Archive / Getty

Rutherford B. Hayes, Easter Egg Roll savior. (Stock Archive/Getty Images)

At some point in April 1878, a child from the neighborhood saw President Hayes on a stroll. He asked Hayes when he'd allow kids to roll eggs on his new White House lawn. Hayes looked into it and told the guards that if any kids showed up to roll eggs on the White House lawn, it was fine.

It's tempting to interpret the egg roll as a political battle. After all, the leader behind the Turf Protection Law, William Holman, was a Democrat, and that party regularly called Hayes "Rutherfraud" because of his disputed election in 1876. So perhaps Hayes was just trying to show up Democrats?

More likely, it was that the president wanted kids to have fun. Nancy Kleinhenz is the communications manager at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, where they've been re-creating the egg roll for years. She says it wasn't politics but fatherly instincts that inspired Hayes to save the day. After all, Hayes had two children who were still young: Scott and Fanny, who were 10 and seven. "Politics wasn't a factor," Kleinhenz says. "He was a dad." Since then, the Easter Egg Roll has become a tradition at the White House, with only brief pauses during wartime.

The Easter egg roll probably isn't a story about partisan battles. But in Washington, everything becomes political when federal resources are involved — and that includes which lawn gets trampled by children playing with eggs.