Holidays at the White House

The United States takes the holidays very seriously, so there is no surprise that our government does as well. Every year, the White House releases a number of Christmas events and items. There’s an annual Christmas ornament, gingerbread house, and of course, the redecoration of the White House in an extravagant Christmas theme. Planning for Christmas takes about a year (meaning each display is planned while the last is still up!) and the First Lady, aided by a litany of staffers and volunteers from across the country, puts the theme into place.

KN-C19677 13 December 1961 President and Mrs. Kennedy with the 1961 White House Christmas Tree. White House, Blue Room. Photograph by Robert Knudsen, Office of the Naval Aide to the President, in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. (Robert Knudsen)

White House Christmases for a long time were a generally spontaneous affair. President Harrison in 1889 brought the first Christmas tree to the mansion, the first lights on a tree were hung under President Cleveland, and the tradition of a tree in the Blue Room was brought in by President Taft. JFK and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy, however, were the first to start the tradition that is followed to this day: that of the official White House Christmas theme. First Lady Kennedy chose the “Nutcracker Suite” for her theme, decorating the tree with sugarplum fairies and ornamental angels straight from Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet. Other First Ladies continued this theme as well: Hillary Clinton in 1996 and Barbara Bush in 1990. The Christmas theme is generally something that focuses on holiday values: family, unity, and merriment. Themes have ranged from celebrations of the Christmas season (1998’s Winter Wonderland or 2001’s Home for the Holidays) to American history and patriotism (1981’s American Folk Art or 2020’s America the Beautiful). One thing that stays constant throughout the varying themes is the level of effort and thought that goes into it. The Christmas theme spans the whole White House, rooms and wings all decorated.

The State Dining Room.

This year, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden chose the holiday theme: Gifts from the Heart. The First Lady designed it as inspired by the small acts of kindness and generosity that were paramount to the American spirit throughout the pandemic. Rooms throughout the White House are designed to each represent a gift: faith, community, family, friendship, learning, nature, gratitude, service, peace, unity,  and the arts. Some highlights of the display include the Blue Room as the gift of peace and unity, and the State Dining Room as the gift of family. 

The Blue Room

The Blue Room is historically home to the official White House Christmas Tree. This year, per the usual, the tree is a Fraser fir, donated by the winner of the National Christmas Tree Association’s National Christmas Tree. For the third year of their careers, this year’s award was given to Rusty and Beau Estes of Peak Farms in Jefferson, NC. The tree itself is 18.5 feet tall and decorated with white lights and beautiful peace-bringing doves to celebrate the gift of unity and peace. 

The State Dining Room this year is decorated to celebrate the gift of family. It features a fireplace, stockings hung by the mantel, and trees covered in ornaments celebrating former First Families. Family is so critical to the image of the US government, Americans look for a First Family that can set an example just as much as they look for a strong Presidential candidate. The State Dining Room is also home to the official Gingerbread White House. The White House pastry team used 55 sheets of baked gingerbread, 120 pounds of pastillage, 35 pounds of chocolate, and 25 pounds of royal icing to create a lifelike image of the White House, surrounded by 8 community buildings (a grocery store, fire department, police station, hospital, etc.) to celebrate the first responders and front-line workers of the pandemic. 

The official White House Gingerbread House.

As previously mentioned, the White House Christmas display is a monumental affair. The currently completed White House features 41 Christmas trees, 25 wreaths, more than 78,000 holiday lights, and over 10,000 ornaments. On top of the year of planning, the theme takes over 100 volunteers over a week to set up the full display. Although some might criticize the displays as frivolous, the holidays are important to many Americans, and our nation’s leader is just that, an American, just on a larger, more broadcasted scale. Holidays at the White House are just the macro example of the same holidays that all typical Americans celebrate. Holiday values ring true everywhere: family, unity, and joyous celebration.