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Christmas traditions at the ‘People’s House’

Since I was a young girl, I have been intrigued by the history and beauty of the “People’s House” located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. Last week the Journal Capital treated us with a glimpse into Lloyd and Jeanelle Smith’s exquisite White House Christmas ornament collection. Today, I am privileged to share Betty Russell’s book review of Jennifer B. Pickens’ “Christmas at the White House.”

Coffee table quality, “Christmas at the White House” charmingly documents the lavish Christmas decorations, celebrations, themes, and traditions spanning half of a century inside the White House. “This book is a joy to read,” said Russell. “It is absolutely beautiful and full of information.

Nine of our First Ladies are featured in the book. Six penned an introduction to their sections. These include Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Patricia Nixon, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara and Laura Bush, and Hillary Clinton. The book’s foreword was written by former First Lady Laura Bush. “Christmas at the White House” documents fifty years, beginning in the early 1960s with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

“President John and Abigail Adams moved into the White House in November of 1800 while it was still under construction,” began Russell. “They were the first presidential family to celebrate Christmas in the White House. Abigail wanted have a party. Their guests almost froze. Many left early.”

Congress passed a law in 1870 making Christmas a National Holiday. The first recorded Presidential tree was during the Harrison administration in 1889. In 1921, Grace Coolidge, wishing to give deeper meaning to the season, set aside a spot in the East Room for a Nativity Scene.

“Coming from Texas, I found Laura Bush’s themes to be my favorite,” said Russell. “As a librarian, I love books and the way Laura drew her themes and decorations from children’s books, such as ‘A Season of Stories.’ She honored animals in ‘All Creatures Great and Small.’ National Parks were asked to selected local artisans for her ‘Holiday in the National Parks’ theme.

“The idea for Barbara Bush’s ‘A Needlepoint Christmas,’ came from a gift from her church ladies. This was a beautiful 45-piece needlepoint nativity scene. Most of the others have been pretty traditional and have been used more than once or twice but all have been beautiful.”

Christmas at the White House in 1963 was a time of sorrow and mourning. “Our country lost President John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22 by an assassin’s bullets. On December 23rd, the black mourning crepe hanging over the doorways and the chandeliers in the White House was replaced with holly wreaths, mistletoe and fresh flowers. Later that evening, Ladybird Johnson said, ‘I walked the well-lit hall for the first time, with the sense that life was going to go on, that we, as a country, were going to begin again.’

“In 1973, the country was in the midst of an energy crisis. Nixon was President. For the most part, fireplaces and candle lights were used in place of traditional Christmas tree lights. This was also the year a bird nest was found in the branches of the Christmas tree. Pat Nixon called it an omen, a sign of good luck. It didn’t hold true. She didn’t know this was their last year in the White House.”.

The economy was once again down in 1974. Betty Ford decorated the White House with homemade crafts to curtail the holiday budget. In 1977, President Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter held their first Christmas in the White House. Rosalynn invited the National Association for Retarded Citizens to make over 2,000 ornaments.

The National tree was kept dark in 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis. President Carter gave daughter Amy the honor of pulling the switch that lit up 50 smaller trees, one symbolizing each hostage.

“This book reflects how our Presidential families are just human,” continued Russell. “It is said that President Regan caught Mrs. Regan under the mistletoe during their first Christmas in the White House in 1981. That same year the President discovered his sensitivity to pollen and was overcome with sneezing while viewing the live Christmas plants.

“I was particularly impressed with this story that occurred in 1989 during President George H.W. Bush’s term. The Bushes had made plans for a weekend at Camp David. When bad weather changed their plans, they had a firsthand opportunity to witness staff and volunteers trimming the mansion for the holidays. When the Bushes caught the decorating team enjoying a mock snowball fight with the artificial snow, the presidential couple ended up inviting everyone upstairs to see the family tree and its trimmings, which Barbara attributed to elves. The First Lady later wrote, ‘Bad weather gave us one of the nicest experiences we had in George’s four year as President – watching the Christmas decorations go up.’

“In 1990, at the official unveiling of the decorations, Mrs. Bush gave the press corps a surprise treat when — for the first time in any reporter’s memory — she invited them upstairs to see the family tree. It was trimmed with the Bushes’ personal ornaments, some of them dating back more than four decades.”

Russell noted she couldn’t find a date for the first White House Christmas card but one was referenced in an article during George Washington’s administration. She said the Clinton’s were the first presidential couple to put their picture on their Christmas card, a tradition they carried throughout his eight years in office. “The Gingerbread houses were replicas of their childhood homes instead of the customary historical monuments or significant events,” said Russell. “The year they had Bill’s childhood home in Hope, Arkansas, they thought a bullet fired through the window was lodged in it. Fortunately the bullet was found lodged in a rug before Bill’s gingerbread home had to be dismantled.”

President George W. and Laura Bush broke tradition in 2001 when they chose a Biblical inscription for their holiday card — two verses from Psalms 27. This was a practice the presidential couple continued for their remaining years. “Because of terrorist attacks, the Secret Service discontinued public tours of the White House,” said Russell. “Laura Bush introduced the Barney Cam Video with Barney (the dog) walking through the White House and grounds. The day the online Barney Cam video was launched, there were 24 million views. This became a holiday feature for the remainder of the Bush years. White House holiday tours were re-opened in 2003.”

Traditions continue to this day that were started by our first ladies. Jacqueline Kennedy initiated formal Christmas themes at the White House. Lady Bird Johnston began a contest to select the National Tree and established a permanent nativity scene. Patricia Nixon is credited with starting more traditions than any other first lady. These included White House tours designed specifically for the visually and hearing impaired, evening candlelight tours, gingerbread houses, and showcasing Christmas Cards and artifacts from past presidents. Betty Ford created the first Holiday Tour booklet. Rosalynn Carter enhanced the original which set the standard for appearance and content.

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