The light, sound and smell of wood fires burning in the Green and Red rooms were just the first sign of the intimacy Jill Biden had sought for the White House’s holiday decorations this year. The Bidens, it turns out, love to spend a cosy night at home, warming up by a crackling fireplace; the White House has 28 of them.
The first lady chose the theme “Gifts From the Heart”, with each room decorated according to its own mini-theme, including the “Gift of Family” and the “Gift of Service”, which is dedicated to the military, frontline workers and first responders.
Gone are Melania Trump’s imposing – some said scary – blood-red trees in the east colonnade, which late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon likened in 2018 to Christmas in hell.
Gone are the dozens of life-size “snow people” wearing scarves and hats in the first lady’s garden, installed by Michelle Obama in 2015 and moved inside in 2016. President Obama told People magazine that they reminded him of a horror movie. “There’s a whole kind of Chucky element to them,” he said. “They’re a little creepy.”
Instead, Jill Biden’s colonnade is a lower-key presentation, with shooting stars and peace doves hanging from the ceiling. The Blue room’s official White House Christmas tree is dotted with peace doves holding white ribbons bearing the name of each state. The official cookie handed out to guests is in the shape of a dove, and is covered in white icing.
The first lady’s first foray into holiday decorating at the White House was not glitzy or opulent, but rather an enhanced version of how many American families decorate their own homes, with lots of candles and twinkling lights.
But it’s not Christmas as usual here. Public tours of the White House are still cancelled, while masks and sometimes coronavirus tests are required to enter the building. The White House hasn't said what kind of events it will host during the holiday season, beyond a Hanukkah open house on Wednesday.
Christmas decorations are one of the first projects that first ladies attend to after they move in. Jill Biden has been working on these since late May, according to Carlos Elizondo, the White House social secretary, and has been “very involved” in the planning, communications director Elizabeth Alexander said. The previous first lady, Melania Trump, claimed she threw herself into designing the holiday decorations, but privately complained about the workload.
Jill Biden has carried over many of the traditions of other first families. The Marine Corps band played Christmas songs such as “The First Noel” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” outside the entrance to the east wing, which is decorated with a towering arch of huge red boxes tied with ribbons. Then, guests were escorted through a hallway filled with framed photos of the first family, including a picture of Jill Biden receiving the White House Christmas tree last week.
The official 2021 gingerbread house – a favourite every year – this time is based on a theme of gratitude for the country’s front-line workers. That was Jill Biden’s idea. “She wanted to help highlight the people that have gotten us through this pandemic that we’re still in,” Elizondo said. The display features eight community buildings, including a hospital, a fire station and a schoolhouse, adjoining a huge replica of the White House, which, just like the real thing, has wreaths hanging in most of the windows. The first lady loves holiday lights and is the first to place a large illuminated wreath atop the pediment of the North Portico. The wreath in the same spot on the gingerbread house lights up, too.
Susan Morrison, White House executive pastry chef, said five people had worked on the 350lb house for several weeks. During a tour of the decorations on Sunday afternoon, Jill Biden placed the final touch: a gingerbread schoolteacher holding an English book and an apple-filled satchel reading “#1 teacher”.
The theme, said Alexander, was chosen because the president and first lady “wanted to focus on things that unite us, that bring us together, and that’s a gift”.
There are replicas of handwritten thank-you letters that Americans have written the Bidens hanging from trees in the East room, representing the “Gift of Gratitude”. The first lady is a fan of colour, and of orchids, Elizondo said, so the Green room is filled with purple and fuchsia live orchids woven into the mantel, and arrangements on the antique tables. In the windows, which look out onto the Washington Monument, stand tall trees made entirely from sparkly purple ornaments clustered together like grapes. A painting by Alma Thomas called Resurrection, which the Obamas had hung in the family dining room, was the center of a vibrant display in the Vermeil room, themed as the “Gift of Visual Arts”. Thomas is the first Black woman whose art has been included in the White House permanent collection.
The most personal touches are in the state dining room, representing the “Gift of Family”. On either side of the mantel are two large trees decorated in red and gold and trimmed with framed photos of the Bidens and other first families, including the Kennedys, Roosevelts and Nixons. On her last few trips back to Delaware this year, Elizondo said, Jill Biden scoured through her family albums looking for the perfect selection of photos to feature. An old snapshot of their German shepherd dogs, Champ and Major, makes an appearance. Her favourite is the one of herself and the president with all three of their adult children, taken before Beau Biden’s death from brain cancer in 2015.
Hanging from the mantel under Abraham Lincoln’s portrait are knitted red-and-white-striped stockings with the Biden grandchildren’s names in green yarn: Naomi, Finnegan, Maisy, Natalie, Hunter, and Baby Beau. Biden ordered them from the same person who made the ones she has in her own home.
Every year, the White House’s holiday decorations manage to reflect the mood in Washington. Most first ladies dust off some recycled ornaments in an effort to look environmentally friendly and frugal. For the Obamas’ first Christmas in 2009, the stock market had tanked and the unemployment rate was 10 per cent. So a curious blend of harvested “dried root material” from the White House kitchen garden trimmed some of the wreaths and trees. This year, Elizondo confirmed, many of the standard ball ornaments on the trees were unearthed from White House storage warehouses.
The number of people able to see the decorations in person has steadily declined since stricter security measures were implemented after the 9/11 attacks, and, of course, the pandemic. The Obamas had only 70,000 tourists and partygoers come through in 2014 – half as many as the Clintons had in their peak years. The pandemic in 2020 forced Melania Trump to change her plans for holiday parties for the Trumps’ mask-optional last Christmas at the White House. She had food individually plated and installed hand-sanitiser stations throughout the state floor. This year, reporters who attended the first lady’s traditional holiday preview had to get an on-site coronavirus test before stepping into the presidential mansion.
Instead, Alexander said, there will be interactive and augmented-reality features, released on official White House digital platforms as well as Snapchat and Instagram. PBS Kids is taping a special on the decorations, so that children can experience holidays at the White House from their own homes.
It’s traditional for children to be invited to the White House the day the decorations are unveiled. In 2017, the year Melania Trump glided down the grand staircase as ballerinas danced to the Nutcracker Suite, she also mingled with kids assembling gumdrop trees and colouring in Christmas cards. In 2013, one of the Obamas’ Portuguese water dogs, Sunny, knocked over a 2-year-old girl during a cookie and craft decorating session for children from military families. No one was hurt, but the next year, Michelle Obama warned her young guests: “So anybody who is afraid of dogs, you tell me, OK? But they’re pretty nice. They’re bigger than they look on TV.”
This year, Biden invited second-grader Elliana Harrell, whose mother is a member of the DC national guard, to bring her family and entire class for story hour in the state dining room. “Do you know I’m a teacher?” Biden asked. A number of kids raised their hands. She sat by the fire and read them a book she’d written from the perspective of her son Beau’s daughter, Natalie, as her father went off to war. “When my son was away, my granddaughter – just like you kids – really, really missed her daddy,” said Biden.
Throughout the reading, she asked the children questions. Did they have pets? Many of them did, including one boy who started talking about his dogs who had died. “Let’s move on to the happier things,” she said. Had any of them lost a tooth? Many had. How much did they get from the tooth fairy? One said a dollar. Then one said $10, another $50. “Fifty dollars!” said Biden. “I’m going to come sleep at your house... I think I got a quarter.”
Before the event started, White House staffers had thrown wood on the fire and stoked it, bringing warmth into the room all over again. The event ended with a singalong with puppets Purple Panda, Donkey Hodie and Grampy.
© The Washington Post
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