News & Politics

The White House Unveils Its Festive Holiday Decorations for Military Families and the Media

The theme this year is “joy to all.”

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