THE WHITE HOUSE Christmas is scaled to the high ceilings and the long tradition of that historic house.
The White House Christmas tree this year is 19 feet tall. Its green furry tip almost touches the plaster medallion in the center of the Blue Room where the tree is always set up. Many think the Blue Room, an oval parlor, is the most beautiful room in the house.
From the tall windows (which slide up to make a door), you can see the Washington monument, and the decorations on the elipse. The other parlors have Christmas colors, the Green Room on the left, the Red Room on the right. If the doors are open to the Blue Room you can see the tree as you come through the Latrobe Portico.
Today Amy, the President and Mrs. Carter hoped to have a minute from the crisis and whispers of crises to help trim their Christmas tree, our Christmas tree, the first tree of the land.
In some ways, this year's tree expresses both a link to the past and a wish for the future. Last year's tree was hung with antique toys, a nostalgic look at Victoriana. Best of all, the major 1979 ornaments are classic handmade decorations. Each effect is so simple and right that it seems sophisticated. The tree is a tribute to American imagination and craft.
Not everybody's version would turn out as well as those on the White House tree, but the basic designs could be made, perhaps of scrap materials, in every home.
"Mrs. Carter wanted ornaments that represented the handwork of young artists of the country, a fresh, different presence," said Gretchen Poston, Mrs. Carter's social secretary. "The President and Mrs. Carter visited the Corcoran Gallery shortly after they moved into the White House. So this year, when we were discussing the tree, she said, "The Corcoran School is our neighbor. Let's ask them to trim our tree.' She saw the first samples of the decorations and approved them. She thinks such things are important for the hundreds of visitors who will go through the house during the holidays and for those who will read about this Christmas as history.
Poston took Mrs. Carter's request to Peter Thomas, director of the Corcoran School. He set to work to put together a design team. The problem was to make ornaments that would be a continuation of the American folkart tradition. The designs are not just a copying of old forms, but a spirited Christmas 1979 rendition -- a variation on the theme of American Christmas. Their efforts is in two different parts -- united by a great burst of creativity.
Corcoran professors Rona Slade and William Christenbery and their 10 students went through the Index of American Design and all sorts of folkart collections looking for basic designs for tree ornaments. Their 10 first-, second- and third-year full-time students have made 500 ornaments for the tree.
Ceramics Professor Robert Epstein has supervised students who've made the real surprise under the tree -- a group of life-sized or super-sized Christmas presents, made of clay, glazed and fired in the Corcoran kiln. The impressions of presents, ranging from super-realism to fantasy, are displayed in Plexiglas boxes tied with Christmas ribbon. The works are by far the most avant-garde art to be displayed in the White House since Louis Comfort Tiffany put up his glass screen in the Great Hall.
The clay works are in the mainstream of what's happening in ceramics today although many, like the teddy bear made by Martha Metford, seem very traditional -- until you touch them and find that the deep brown cuddly fur is really hard clay.
Nancy Sinclair's ski boot, for instance, looks so much like leather, you could except it to fit. Her duffle bag seems ready to go on your trip. You expept the clay vase of roses by Young Joo Chung to come up smelling like...
Not everything is life-sized. The grand piano by Kyoko Nakajima is only big enough to play minuets in a Christmas dream. A chaste, big-hatted maiden by Claudia Gonzalez is obviously too good to be true.
A pair of ballet slippers by Barbara Beckler is ready for the dance. And the double-sized razor and tooth brush by Marc Fernandez and the oversized nail clipper and ball point pen by Barry Mason could have come straight from a store for Superman.
Roxanne Cotton made the rocking horse. Donald Dixon made a mythical beast which is also a candelabra. Donna Feimster's boxes are full of angel wings and cloud cups. Edward Peter's television set is actual size, but Mary Tracy's airplane is, fortunately, somewhat smaller. Brian Smith's wind harps almost whistle when you look at them.
The idea for the ceramic surprises could be copied by anyone who has access to a kiln, working at whatever level the potter has reached. But for those who don't have a kiln, there's the alternative of working smaller and simpler in construction paper, Plasticene, papier mache or even the glop made of flour, salt and water.
Slade and Christenberry had the monumental task of producing the 500 decorations for the tree -- just enough, they figure, for the very tall tree. They came up with a way of making a great many ornaments -- but all different. tThey used an electric saw to cut from 3/32-inch balsa wood (the soft, easy-to-work wood traditionally used to make airplane models) several basic shapes: a baby angel, a skirted angel with trumpet, rocking horse, a teddy bear and circles. Then the 10 students set about painting them with acrylic paints. After the colors went on, the ornaments were coated with a thin, black "antiquing" stain, glittered with a touch or two of gold and varnished over to keep them fresh.
The technique is simple enough for anyone to follow. The balsa wood can be cut with a penknife if you don't have a jigsaw. You'll need a hole in the top of each, of course, to tie on the tree.
The Corcoran students took the standard forms and then let their paint brushes turn each into an individual miniature. The circles became fruit -- Georgia watermelon and a luscious peach, the work of Leonard Haft.
The horses were doubled to make a rocking horse that would actually gallop, if a tiny enough rider could be found. Probably the funniest of the pieces are the angels where the artists have really let themselves go. There's one that looks like an avenging Mary Poppins, with streaming black hair, a skirt that despite her flight stays properly at her ankles, and a determined set to her mouth.
Even though the form is the same, the cherub angels are a widely diverse lot. One wears socks, one has a band around his head like a toothache bandage, most have bows on their horns and remarkable wings which in at least one case look like water wings. Most wear almost no clothes, though an occassional one has what looks like a wispy G-string. The angels are very ethnic: black, Italian, German, Celtic. You could stand all day if the White House guards would let you (which they won't) and look at the different ones.
Tim Gunn is responsible for some of the most elaborate, unduplicated pieces. Probably the most popular is the balsa wood White House with a cut out for the Blue Room and a tiny green tree set in. He also made a balsa sporting convertible car, and a steam engine with cattle bumper. Bill Worff made a whole fleet of balsa ships John Parker carved enough doll furniture to furnish several White Houses. John Harlow made Indians and cardinal birds among other delights. Christenbeerry made a liberty figure with a sword.
Mary Ostenso made the elaborate flower baskets. She took straw coasters, bent them like a nosegay holder and filled them with tiny, real, dried flowers, tied up with a bow. Each one took hours to make. Though she's a full-time student, she also works as a nurse and sometimes during the long night hours she worked on the baskets.
Elisabeth Boelte made small pillows with their own handles, elaboratley embroidered in fanciful nostalgic styles. Rona Slade made dolls, out of pretty bits of pieces of fabric put together as they do in her native Wales. Jean Bernhards was responsible for the reindeer. Leslie Nelson and Donna Klepich worked on a variety of designs. Diane Antonelli constructed paper pitchers made to look like toleware.
Poston said that Christmas begins early in the White House. "We start working on Christmas in March. We have to start then so the Christmas cardswill be ready for the 800 volunteers to begin addressing in September. We work all summer on Christmas. People are horrified though, to hear me caroling in July."
The Douglas fir was grown in Shepardstown, W.Va., by Eric Sundback of Bethesda, and given by the Christmas Tree Grower's Association. As is usual in the Carter's Christmases, the rest of the decorations are rather subdued, so that they build up to the crescendo of the tree. The poinsettias this year are white, but bunches of red silk ball -- the only commercial ornaments -- are spots of color on the tree and through the house. And of course, there are pine cones, the traditional Georgia decoration, everywhere.
Decorations, even if they're made with love and imagination, cannot guaranttee the family in the White House a merry Christmas or a happy new year. But for centuries, ornaments at Christmas have served their purpose. Their brightness reminds us that the dark days of winter have stretched to their length, and behold! we have the promise that the sun will come again.