Barbara Bush officially opened this year's installment of a White House Christmas yesterday -- complete with a two-horse open sleigh (okay, a wagon), ghosts of Christmas Past and children with visions of Ninja Turtles dancing in their heads.
Celebrating her 10th year as the National Christmas Tree topper, the First Lady arrived on the Ellipse behind the White House to place a star atop the tree, a live 35-foot Blue Spruce.
She was greeted by her daughter, Dorothy Bush LeBlond, and two grandchildren, Sam and Ellie LeBlond, who brought along their schoolmates to watch the two ride up the hydraulic lift with their grandmother.
"Clap," 6-year-old Sam whispered to his classmates. "Clap."
Sam received a kiss from his grandmother, and his 4-year-old sister rushed up for a hug and twirled in her new red coat -- a gift from the First Lady for Ellie's fourth birthday on Nov. 19.
The First Lady and the two children, along with Joseph Riley, president of the Christmas Pageant of Peace that organizes the National Christmas Tree celebration, then climbed into the lift and began the ride to the top of the tree.
The lift, jerking upward in fits and starts, produced delighted squeals from Sam and Ellie and mock terror from their grandmother. LeBlond, 35 feet below, looked up with a mix of motherly pride and alarm that one more lurch would send her mother and children flying through the air.
"Jump, Sam, jump!" shouted his first-grade classmates from Westbrook Elementary School in Bethesda. Sam grinned and waved.
The lift driver backed the arm and repositioned. The lift shuddered some more and then plowed into the tree. Riley handed the star to Mrs. Bush, who leaned over the edge and just reached the top of the tree.
"Yeah!" squealed the children. Shutters clicked. Applause all around.
The president and First Lady will light the tree in a ceremony Dec. 13.
Earlier, the season of goodwill and photo opportunities kicked off on the North Portico when the First Lady was presented with an 18-foot Fraser fir bound for glory in the Blue Room as the White House Christmas Tree.
The tree, grown on the North Carolina farm of Michael and Bruce Lacey, arrived in a wagon drawn by Fred and Dick, two 2,000-pound Belgian draft horses. "It's beautiful," pronounced Mrs. Bush. "Perfect." The Laceys also provided a tree for the Oval Office that George Bush decorates with homemade cookies he gives to his guests.
When asked her wish for Christmas, the First Lady replied, "We're all wishing for peace. We want our people home." The statement echoed last year's sentiment, which came three weeks before the invasion of Panama: "I want no war. I want people to be well."
Fred and Dick, adorned with jingle bells and little red bows, took all the cameras in stride. This is the fourth trip up the White House driveway for the pair, who spend most of their time at Oxon Hill Farm in Maryland. "We exercise them ahead of time so they're not too prancy," said a National Park Service official.
Nonetheless, First Dog Millie, who last year narrowly escaped an untimely demise under one of the massive hoofs, was nowhere to be seen. There were unconfirmed reports that the best-selling canine was busy negotiating a books-on-tape deal with Milli Vanilli.