During the rest of the year, potentates and powers-that-be are entertained in ceremonial grandeur. But Christmas at the White House is celebrated for the people who live and work there and those who line up to go through the house in numbers equaled no place else in the world.
Close to 10,000 people are invited to at least eat a cookie or sip punch during the holidays at the house. Many more go through on tours.
The tall white columns of the porticos, the stark white of the walls, the severity of the classic revival style, can seem almost forebidding during the starkness of November. But at Christmas, the cold white color and simple architecture makes the proper backdrop for dark evergreens and brilliant red holly berries.
The great white halls and foyer, with their high ceilings, are roped with greens, festooned with ribbons, flowered with poinsettias. The grand East Room, the Reception Room and the State Dining Room -- classical rooms with white walls and deep windows -- come into their own when their mantels are draped with green and huge logs burn in the marble manteled fireplaces. The three small parlors, almost cozy by contrast to the great halls and the grand rooms, are Christmas colors all year. To the east, the Green Room and on the west, the Red Room are the colors of evergreen and berries. In between is the Blue Room, where the tree always stands, just under the oval medallion that matches the shape of the room. With the Blue Room door open, you can see the tree, as you come in from the north portico.
"We really started when we took down the decorations from last Christmas," said Gretchen Poston, Rosalynn Carter's social secretary. "We decided that this year would be our romantic, old-fashioned Christmas. Our colors are ecru, from a lace, and an old rose-pink copied from the variety of rose called 'Sterling Silver.' The inside of the rose is cream and the edges faded pink."
The colors are all over the house, in the velvet and moire on the wreaths, in the pink poinsettias, in the ribbons decorating the green roping on the mantles.
In the East Room, by tradition, the Christmas creche is again set up to be the most beautiful part of the decorations.
In the State Dining Room, green roping scallops the cornice. Silk flowers in bouquets filled the hatboxes as centerpieces for the Cabinet dinner, set atop lace tablecloths with an extra flounce and pink underskirts.
Topiary trees of boxwood, ligustrum and cedar, ornamented with miniature white lights and dusty rose moire taffeta bows march along the columns and fill the niches of the great cross hall. The Presidental Seal itself is framed by a wreath trimmed with rose velvet and a moire bow. On the ground floor, red Williamsburg candles brighten the Diplomatic Reception Room, with red and white poinsettias.
The tree itself is decorated with ecru and old rose reproductions of 19th-century dolls with parasols, balls covered with antique tapestry fabric and laces, miniature Victorian hats, and garlands and nosegays of silk flowers, Victorian bisque doll heads and hand-painted porcelain on sticks, fans, baby's breath flowers, and 1,000 tassels against miniature white lights. Under the tree are old-fashioned toys.
Up in Hartford, Conn., Louis Nichole with all his family made Victorian houses for a street scene to go under the tree. One house was made of 15,000 real bricks in miniature. The family also made the dolls and toys.
Even in the times of sadness to the occupants of the White House -- when elections have been lost, or scandals threatened resignations, the Christmas celebration goes on, with only a bit of poignancy for the Spirit of White House Christmases Never-to-Be.
In the height of the Watergate scandal, Patricia Nixon announced bravely, "A nest was found in our Christmas tree, that means good luck for the new year."
This year, after the lost election, Rosalynn Carter seems intent on sharing the best Christmas yet.
Tomorrow morning, if the thermometer hits 32, a snow machine will pull up on the White House lawn and proceed to make the lawn as white as the house. By 2 p.m., if all goes well, there will be enough of the fluffy white ice to make snow people (this being a Civil Rights administration). The president himself is expected to judge the contest.
Peggy Fleming and her company will skate on an instant ice rink. The delicious smells of hot dogs, popcorn, hot chestnuts and grog, will warm up the air. Carolers from Washington schools and churches will drown out Pennsylvania Avenue. At the end of the evening, huge fireworks spelling out Merry Christmas and drawing a snowman will illuminate the sky. And the Carter crowd, some 4,000 staff members, military attaches and their families, will have a last hurrah.
By this time of December, the White House has already had 10 Christmas events. But Christmas began in July for Rosalynn Carter and her Christmas angels: Poston and Marilyn Funderburk, her assistant.
"Mrs. Carter has been especially interested in adding to the White House's painting collection. So all year, she's kept her eye out to pick out the painting to use on the Christmas card," Poston said.
This year's card is a romantic mid 19th-century painting of the White House, which now hangs in the president's Oval Office. In the foreground, Sunday sailors in straw hats, one in a sailboat, two in flat-bottom boats, float on a romanticized view of Tiber Creek, the polluted, smelly "home for dead cats" that presidents so often criticized in the early days. Tiber Creek still flows, but now in conduits under Constitution Avenue.
On a gentle rise is the White House, without the famous Truman balcony of our times and without the East and West wings. It seems almost naked without the tall trees and plantings we know. The painting, a 1967 gift to the house, is by an unknown artist who probably based his work on a steel engraving by the English artist William H. Bartlett, according to the White House. Bartlett's engravings were inspirations for many artists during the mid 1900s.
The card was printed in August. Beginning in September, 800 to 1,000 volunteers began to address 750,000 cards. The social secretary's office addressed the 2,500 to members of the diplomatic corps and Congress and heads of state.
In the kitchen, Roland Mesnier, the pastry chef, who came to the White house from the Homestead 10 months ago, began cooking for Christmas the first of November: 250 fruitcakes, date and walnut and pumpkin breads and 12,000 cookies. At the end of November, he'd already made trays of marzipan Santa Clauses, mushrooms and candles. The gingerbread house itself, an alpine A-frame cottage with a surprising fanlight door, was already decorated with gumdrops and candy canes.
The florist's shop in the basement of the White House started making their green ropes and wreaths the first week of December. The poinsettias have been growing in the greenhouses for months.
Back in November, the White House carpentry shop made hatboxes out of cardboard and the tops from potato chip tins, painted a faded rose color. Four or five volunteers had worked covering the hatboxes with lace, inserted with an old rose gimp and balls with ribbons.
The tree, a prize-winner of the National Christmas Tree Growers' Association, was grown by Harry Eby in Bristol, Ind. The 20-foot Douglas fir arrived the second week of December.
About 20 skilled volunteers, many of them from local garden clubs and local florists, worked almost around the clock to decorate the house last weekend. Buffet lunches and dinners were set up for them in the Family Dining Room, just off the State Dining Room. All during the weekend, President and Mrs. Carter and Amy pop in and out to see how things are going, and tuck up a greenery or two.
After the last green is in place, Poston will go home to her own family's Christmas -- and her traditional Christmas Eve open house for 300 people.