Holidays at the White House


As with pretty much everything the President of the United States does, he will not be able to make everyone happy with how the White House decorates for, and commemorates, the December holiday season. I can easily say, “I am going to radically change how I decorate my apartment for Christmas this year.” It is not so easy for the First Family, who has to balance beloved traditions with contemporary awareness.

There have been criticisms based on reality (commenters who decry the lavishness of the decorations; perceptions of being snubbed by a scaled-back Hanukkah party). And there is the (completely false) urban legend that the Obamas renamed all of their Christmas trees “holiday trees.”

2008 White House holiday tour

2008 White House holiday tour

I would like to put the controversy aside and mention some aspects of the White House’s holiday décor and events that, hopefully, most of us can agree are positive:

Honoring military families. It has become tradition to have ornaments that honor the troops, and invite military families to special events at the White House during the holidays. On the East Landing, visitors can pause to send a card to a person serving in the US armed forces.

Exhibiting the artwork of everyday citizens. The White House is a living historic house museum, and the art displayed on the Christmas trees is visible to all the guests who go on holiday tours. As another example of honoring the military, children of military families made some of the ornaments on display. The artwork in this tour booklet was created by  local students.

In the past, the Kennedys displayed ornaments made by senior citizens and artists with disabilities; the Nixons had decorations created by disabled veterans; and the Fords used all-natural trimmings made by gardeners – just to name a few examples.

Teaching history. The While House serves as a living history museum, with many uses – including its role as a visitor destination where people see art and artifacts from the current and previous First Families. Many historical objects are on display, and the themes chosen by previous First Ladies are shown in the Entrance Hall.

Using objects that are meaningful to Americans. In 2010, the Obamas used a menorah found amid the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in their Hanukkah celebration.

Celebrating dogs! Who can deny the cuteness of First Dogs, a cuteness which transcends all partisan division? Follow this link to see official photos of dogs and cats of different administrations celebrating Christmas at the White House.

A George W. Bush First Dog, on the 2008 holiday tour. Photo by Emma DiSciullo

A George W. Bush First Dog, seen on the 2008 holiday tour. Photo by Emma DiSciullo

My mother, sister, and I attended the holiday tour in 2008. The absolute highlight of the tour for us dog lovers was catching a glimpse of the Bush dogs hurrying inside from their walk.

The Obama White House has made it a tradition to create Bo lookalike decorations using a variety of materials. These videos, from 2011 and 2012, are heartmelting.

My blog theme for December is There’s No Place Like Historic Homes for the Holidays! If there is a historic house museum where you have worked/interned/volunteered/visited whose holiday finery or activities you enjoyed, let me know if you would like to write a guest blog post.

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December’s blog theme is There’s No Place Like Historic Homes for the Holidays!

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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