Once upon a time, introducing the Washington press corps to the White House holiday decorations was a low-key, intimate, and behind-the-scenes affair. In the 1970s, for example, First Lady Pat Nixon met a group of about 20 reporters and photographers in the mansion’s Entrance Hall and casually walked with them from room to room, talking about the various decorations and posing for a few photos. Later administrations, particularly those of Reagan, Bush, and Clinton, included a buffet of holiday foods similar to what would be served at the succession of White House holiday parties; there was also hot cider and the legendary White House eggnog, which was made from scratch with eggs, cream, sugar, spices, cognac, rum, and bourbon. Journalists, their numbers growing, had free rein in the public rooms, enabling them to zoom in on the details of the holiday splendor and perhaps score a few endearing quotes from the First Lady.
In the Obama administration, the occasion is a much more elaborate and controlled affair and is also used as an opportunity to do some good—this year’s, for example, paid tribute to the Armed Forces. When 75 selected reporters and photographers were shepherded into the residence on Wednesday, they started their journey in the East Wing and then went up the stairs to the Cross Hall, through the gem-colored Red, Blue, and Green Rooms, and ultimately into the East Room, where the gilded opera chairs were filled with military families, including Gold Star and Blue Star parents, spouses, and children. At every step of the way there were festive holiday tableaus to behold; garlands, colorful ornaments and set pieces, and at least a few dozen beautiful trees. There’s a life-size replica of Bo, the Obamas’ pet Portuguese water dog, and a 300-pound gingerbread White House with a miniature Bo and a marzipan replica of First Lady Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden, with tiny perfect cabbage, carrot, endive, and kale plants.
The theme of this year’s White House Christmas is “joy to all.” The centerpiece, in the Blue Room, is a ceiling-high North Carolina Fraser fir. It pays tribute to members of the military—active duty as well as veterans, and their families—with ornaments decorated by children living on US military bases all over the world. Mixed in are traditional ornaments—frosted silver pine cones, colorful balls, and glittering bells, some recycled from past years—as well as elegant swaths of ribbon wrapped around the tree. The four trees that grace the Entrance and Cross halls are tributes to former First Ladies. In the state dining room, flanking George P.A. Healy’s portrait of President Abraham Lincoln, are two trees festooned with Christmas stockings, gold ribbon, and green and red balls. The theme is carried out on the mantel of the working fireplace.
There are many enchanting details throughout. In the Red Room the trees and mantel garland are made from cranberries, lemons, and other fruits (alas, the fruits are artificial, to avoid staining the walls). In the Green Room, miniature terrariums hang from the trees, celebrating a theme of the “winter garden,” which is in the full view through the tall windows. In the East Room the trees are decorated with a homage to American folk art, featuring handcrafted wood ornaments, needlepoint and antique paintings. Also of particular interest is a well-curated exhibition of White House Christmas cards, dating back to the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It was in the East Room that the First Lady welcomed her guests, and the press corps, who were kept in the back of the room. She was introduced by Jennifer Cole, one of the volunteers who worked on the White House decorations. Cole is the daughter of an Army sergeant and the wife of a retired Air Force colonel. “This is one big thank-you,” said Mrs. Obama to the military families. Referring to one of the featured trees, she said, “This tree is decorated with Gold Star ornaments bearing the names of America’s greatest heroes—those who gave their lives for our country.” As an amusing aside, she noted the large replica of the family dog. “That basically represents Bo’s standing in the house. He’s almost as big as the house; he has such a huge personality.”
Following the opening ceremony, the military families and Mrs. Obama walked to the state dining room for a demonstration of how to make holiday crafts and treats that featured tutorials from White House chefs Cris Comerford and Bill Yosses and White House chief floral designer Laura Dowling. But there was no more grand buffet of foods and no eggnog, only cookies and cider, and the hungry media scrum had to settle for nibbling and not stuffing themselves. This was made particularly tough due to the scrumptious smells of cooking that wafted from the White House kitchen.
Next week the President and First Lady will begin a series of holiday parties, where they entertain members of Congress, the administration, the diplomatic corps, White House staffers and families, and, yes, even the media. Public tours are available. More than 90,000 people are expected to visit. For more information, visit the White House website.