The light, sound and smell of wood fires burning in the Green and Red rooms were just the first sign of the intimacy Jill Biden sought for the White House’s holiday decorations this year. The Bidens, it turns out, love to spend a cozy night in America’s home warming up by a crackling fireplace; the White House has 28 of them.
The first lady chose the theme, “Gifts From the Heart,” with each room decorated in its own mini-theme, including the “Gift of Family” and the “Gift of Service,” which is dedicated to the military, front-line workers and first responders.
Gone are Melania Trump’s imposing — and some said, scary — blood red trees in the East Colonnade, from 2018, which late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon likened to Christmas in hell.
Gone are the dozens of life-size “snow people,” wearing scarves and hats, in the first lady’s garden, installed by Michelle Obama in 2015, and moved inside in 2016. President Barack Obama told People magazine that they reminded him of a horror movie. “There’s a whole kind of Chucky element to them,” he said. “They’re a little creepy.”
Instead, Jill Biden’s Colonnade is a lower-key presentation, with shooting stars and peace doves hanging from the ceiling. The Blue Room’s official White House Christmas tree is dotted with peace doves holding white ribbons bearing the names of each state. The official cookie handed out to guests is in the shape of a dove and covered in white icing.
Biden’s first foray into holiday decorating at the White House was not glitzy or opulent, but rather an enhanced version of how many American families decorate their own homes, with lots of candles and twinkling lights.
But it’s not Christmas as usual here. Public tours of the White House are still canceled, masks and sometimes coronavirus tests are required to enter the building. The White House hasn’t said what kind of events it will host during the holiday season, beyond a Hanukkah open house on Wednesday.
Christmas decorations are one of the first projects that first ladies tend to after they move in. Biden has been working on these since late May, according to Carlos Elizondo, the White House social secretary, and has been “very involved” in the planning, Communications Director Elizabeth Alexander said. The previous first lady, Melania Trump, claimed she threw herself into designing the holiday decorations but privately complained about the workload.
Biden carried over many of the traditions of other first families. The Marine Corps Band played such Christmas songs as “The First Noel” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” outside the entrance to the East Wing, which is decorated with a towering arch of huge red boxes tied with ribbons. Then, guests were escorted through a hallway filled with framed photos of the first family, including Jill Biden receiving the White House Christmas tree last week.
The official 2021 gingerbread house — a favorite every year — this time is made with a theme of gratitude for the country’s front-line workers. That was Biden’s idea. “She wanted to help highlight the people that have gotten us through this pandemic that we’re still in,” Elizondo said. The display features eight community buildings, such as a hospital, a fire station and a schoolhouse adjoining a huge replica of the White House, which, just like the real thing, has wreaths hanging in most of the outside windows. Biden loves holiday lights and is the first to place a large illuminated wreath atop the pediment of the North Portico. The wreath in the same spot on the gingerbread house lights up, too.
Susan Morrison, White House executive pastry chef, said five people worked on the 350-pound house for several weeks. During a tour of the decorations Sunday afternoon, Biden placed the final touch: a gingerbread schoolteacher holding an English grade book and an apple-filled satchel reading “#1 teacher.”
The theme, Alexander said, was chosen because the president and first lady “wanted to focus on things that unite us, that bring us together, and that’s a gift from the heart.”
There are replicas of handwritten thank-you letters that Americans had written the Bidens hanging from trees in the East Room, representing the “Gift of Gratitude.” The first lady is a fan of color and of orchids, Elizondo said, so the Green Room is filled with purple and fuchsia live orchids woven into the mantel and arrangements on the antique tables. In the windows, which look out onto the Washington Monument, stand tall trees made entirely of sparkly purple ornaments, clustered together like grapes. A painting by Alma Thomas, called “Resurrection,” which the Obamas had hung in the Family Dining Room, was the center of a vibrant display in the Vermeil Room themed as the “Gift of Visual Arts.” Thomas is the first Black woman whose art is included in the White House permanent collection.
The most personal touches came in the State Dining Room, representing the “Gift of Family.” On either side of the mantel are two large trees decorated in red and gold and trimmed with framed photos of the Bidens and other First Families, including the Kennedys, Roosevelts and Nixons. On her last few trips back to Delaware this year, Elizondo said, Biden scoured through her family albums looking for the perfect selection of photos to feature. An old snapshot of their German shepherds, Champ and Major, makes an appearance. Her favorite is the one of her and the president with all three of their adult children, before Beau Biden’s death from brain cancer in 2015.
Hanging from the mantel under Abraham Lincoln’s portrait are knit red-and-white-striped stockings with the Biden grandchildren’s names in green yarn: Naomi, Finnegan, Maisy, Natalie, Hunter, and Baby Beau. Biden ordered them from the same person who made the ones she has in her own home.
Every year, the White House’s holiday decorations manage to reflect the mood in Washington. Most first ladies dust off some recycled ornaments so it makes them look environmentally friendly and frugal. For the Obamas’ first Christmas in 2009, the stock market had tanked and the unemployment rate was 10 percent. So a curious blend of harvested “dried root material” from the White House kitchen garden trimmed some of the wreaths and trees. This year, Elizondo confirmed, many of standard ball ornaments on the trees were unearthed from White House storage warehouses.
The number of people able to see the decorations in person has steadily declined since stricter security measures were implemented after the 9/11 attacks, and, of course, the pandemic. The Obamas had only 70,000 tourists and partygoers come through in 2014 — half as many as the Clintons had in their peak years. The pandemic in 2020 forced Melania Trump to change her plans for holiday parties for the Trumps’ mask-optional last Christmas at the White House. She had food individually plated and installed hand sanitizer stations throughout the State Floor. This year, reporters who attended the traditional first lady’s holiday preview had to get an on-site coronavirus test before stepping into the presidential mansion.
Instead, Alexander said, there will be interactive and augmented reality features released on official White House digital platforms as well as Snapchat and Instagram. PBS Kids is taping a special on the decorations so that children could experience holidays at the People’s House from their own homes.
It’s tradition for children to be invited to the White House the day the decorations are unveiled. In 2017, the year Melania Trump glided down the grand staircase as ballerinas danced to “The Nutcracker Suite,” she also mingled with kids assembling gumdrop trees and coloring holiday cards. In 2013, one of the Obamas’ Portuguese water dogs, Sunny, knocked over a 2-year-old girl during a cookie and craft decorating session for children from military families. No one was hurt, but the next year, Michelle Obama warned her young guests, “So anybody who is afraid of dogs, you tell me, okay? But they’re pretty nice. They’re bigger than they look on TV.”
This year, Biden invited second-grader Elliana Harrell, whose mother is a member of D.C. National Guard, to bring her family and entire class for story hour in the State Dining Room. “Do you know I’m a teacher?” Biden asked. A number of kids raised their hands. She sat by the fire and read them a book she’d written from the perspective of her son Beau’s daughter, Natalie, as her father went off to war. “When my son was away, my granddaughter — just like you kids — really, really missed her daddy,” said Biden.
Throughout the reading, she asked the kids questions. Did they have pets? Many of them did, including one boy who started talking about his dogs who had died. “Let’s move on to the happier things,” she said. Had any of them lost a tooth? Many had. How much did they get from the tooth fairy? One said a dollar. Then one said $10, another $50. “Fifty dollars!” said Biden. “I’m going to come sleep at your house. … I think I got a quarter.”
Before the event started, White House staffers had thrown wood on the fire and stoked it, bringing warmth into the room all over again. The event ended with a singalong with puppets Purple Panda, Donkey Hodie, and Grampy.