"Holiday Treasures at the White House" celebrates the past and future in the most elaborate decorations the Chronicler has ever seen in the People's House.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, her hard-working staff and 375 volunteer artists from 49 states and the District of Columbia have created a wonderland, with their models of historic landmarks and doll images--from Benjamin Franklin to Crispus Attucks.
White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier and his talented team of chefs shaped confectionery versions of Mrs. Clinton's favorite "American treasures," which should be preserved for millenniums to come. The White House, the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, Mount Vernon and even a marzipan Potomac River, banked with chocolate trees, are displayed beautifully in the State Dining Room.
And for the first time in 100 years, a magnificent gilded bronze "plateau" (centerpiece)--bought by President James Monroe in 1817 France--sits grandly in its entirety on the State Dining Room table. At Christmas parties, it is surrounded by artistically shaped foods.
Throughout the main floor, inedible models are on mantelpieces, holiday trees, tables and in some unexpected places. In the West Wing lobby, for example, is a menorah modeled by California artist Marlene Zimmerman of the Breed Street Shul, a historic Los Angeles synagogue.
The White House's 28 trees extend from the East Room to the Grand Foyer (beware the "kissing ball" by Hyla Hurley) to Cross Hall. In the East Foyer, 83 poinsettias are stacked in the shape of a tree. And the Blue Room tree alone has 11,911 ornaments.
Since 1890 the White House has decorated Christmas trees, usually in the Blue Room, and since 1893 a tree has been lighted annually in Lafayette Park or the Ellipse. It wasn't until the late 1840s and the influx of German immigrants to Virginia that Christmas trees were common at all.
The first national tree was erected in 1941, when Britain's Winston Churchill and the Norwegian crown prince and princess visited during World War II. Thousands gathered to carol.
Much has changed over the years. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Christmas was a religious holiday, not a time for decorating trees or exchanging presents. Celebration began on Dec. 24 and lasted until Jan. 6. The harvest was in, and when the roads were not frozen, friends, family and even unknown passersby dropped in without notice--to visit, play cards, drink wine, whiskey and rum, go fox- and bird-hunting, and most of all, to eat.
The meat pie was the main delicacy on grand plantations, which, as George Washington was fond of saying, were like a "well-resorted tavern." Mount Vernon historian Mary Thompson said that traditionally the meat pie was made with beef, rabbit, turkey, goose, chicken, duck, partridge and small game birds stuffed inside a pie crust. (Fruit in those days was far too scarce in most households to use as decorations.)
During the Christmas season, Mount Vernon's estate workers, including slaves, were given rum, whiskey, four holidays, a little money and presents.
The first social occasion in the White House was not, unlike recent presidential parties, held at Christmas. On New Year's Day 1801, John and Abigail Adams gave the first full-scale social fete in the new mansion.
Like Washington, Adams, in full black velvet dress, did not shake hands but bowed to his guests, a practice many a president may wish to follow today after so many squeezes. The Adamses arrived in Washington in the winter of 1800. They traveled in high style, as befitted the second president of the United States. Ten horses drew the coach. Eight servants and a few necessities came from their Massachusetts farm. The first lady set up a dignified social salon.
When Thomas Jefferson replaced Adams as president, he declared he would not have drawing rooms or levees or other elaborate parties for the socially elect. The elite ladies did not agree. They marched on the White House as though they were invited. Jefferson, coming from his daily rounds on horseback in his riding boots, was so gallant and gracious that the women retired without complaining. Jefferson, a widower, learned his lesson and invited Dolley Madison to serve as his hostess--an inspired choice.
His New Year's reception welcomed citizens, cobblers, tinkers and foreign diplomats. He covered the sideboards with cakes and other refreshments.
Like the Clintons, Jefferson's functions became so popular that he eventually had to hold his Fourth of July socials in tents and booths all over the White House grounds.
Andrew Jackson--now celebrated on Christmas tree ornaments on sale by the White House Historical Society--held the most informal Christmas party. Invitations from his adopted son, nieces and nephews went to children: "to join them on Christmas Day at 4 p.m. in a frolic in the East Room."
The East Room held hoops to roll and a pyramid made of cotton snowballs, topped by a golden rooster. After dinner came a snow (cotton) fight. And the Marine Band played on.
For Merry Christmas tours of the White House, call 202-456-7041, 24 hours a day.
Jonathan Yardley's column will return on Jan. 3.
CAPTION: Hillary Rodham Clinton with the White House's fanciful gingerbread and marzipan holiday display.