Everyone is familiar with those shiny glass mirror ball ornaments you can find at any big-box store, but this year, first lady Jill Biden hung actual mirrors on the trees of the White House’s Grand Foyer. Circular mirrors. Square mirrors. Lean in, and your face will appear, clear as day.
In other words, the People’s House will be filled with reflections of the 50,000 visitors expected to come through the doors in the next four weeks — some for tours, others to attend the 20-plus planned holiday receptions, ramping up for the first time since the pandemic. The words “We the People” — the first lady’s theme this year — hang over the entrance to the East Wing, and a copy of the Declaration of Independence, printed in 1845, is on display in the library.
For their second Christmas in the White House, Biden continued her aim for a homier, more approachable decoration style than her predecessor, Melania Trump. The East Colonnade, known during Trump’s time as the spooky corridor of blood red trees, is decorated to look like a wintry birch forest, with round white ornaments and crystal droplets hanging from the ceiling, and fresh (fake) snow on the ground. Handmade woodland creatures — a fox, a deer and an owl made of recycled cardboard and fabric strips — pop out for a look.
There are 77 Christmas trees, 25 wreaths and more than 83,615 lights in this year’s display, the White House reported. “The values that unite us can be found all around you,” Biden said at an afternoon reception thanking the 170 volunteers from across the country who worked almost around-the-clock for seven days to decorate the house. “A belief in possibility and optimism and unity. Room by room, we represent what brings us together during the holidays, and throughout the year.”
One very personal touch this year is in the China Room. The mantel and trees feature grease-spattered, handwritten recipes contributed by volunteers. At the center of the mantel are two of Jill Biden’s own family cards, one for apple crisp and one for pizzelle, traditional Italian waffle cookies. This year, two of Biden’s sisters volunteered for the decorating marathon.
At the reception, Biden thanked volunteers for traveling so far to work so hard. “Now, some of you may still have a little glue gun residue on your fingers or a sore back from hanging up all that snow in the colonnade,” she said. “Yesterday, you might have thought, ‘If I have to tie just one more bow, I’m outta here!’ Am I right?”
White House social secretary Carlos Elizondo gave the Bidens a tour of the decorations Sunday when they returned from their Thanksgiving family vacation in Nantucket. “I look forward to this every year,” Elizondo said. “They were ecstatic and blown away by the beauty and how the house was transformed.”
The official White House tree, an 18½-foot concolor fir from a farm in Pennsylvania, reaches from floor to ceiling in the Blue Room, decorated with handmade birds from all 50 states as well as the six U.S. territories and D.C.
The true centerpiece this year, though, is the “We the Children” display in the State Dining Room, reflecting Biden’s career as an educator. Self-portraits created by students of the 2021 Teachers of the Year from across the country have been fashioned into ornaments for the Christmas trees. “The first lady specifically wanted the project to include self-portraits because she wanted kids to see themselves in the holiday decor,” said Alexander. “I mean, my tree at home is covered with my kids’ art.” Red-and-white-striped knit stockings bearing the names, in green, of the Biden grandchildren hang from the mantel.
Re-creations of First pets Commander (the dog) and Willow (the cat), wrapped in red scarves and sculpted from papier-mâché and recycled products such as burlap and fabrics, also greet guests as they exit the East Colonnade. A cheekier version of the Bidens’ German shepherd appears in the “Kindness and Gratitude” themed Vermeil Room, peeking out of a wrapped gift box while Willow rests nearby. The room includes boxes from Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit organization that delivers care packages to first responders, deployed troops and military families.
The whole look is meant “to feel approachable and accessible for people at home, so there’s several DIY elements,” Alexander said. Among them is a curtain of bells hanging from red and green ribbons in the windows of the Green Room. Real bells intermingle with DIY versions made of plastic cups and the tops of plastic wine glasses, spray-painted gold and hung from shower curtain rings.
Four national parks — Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Great Smoky Mountains, and Shenandoah — are highlighted in the East Room. The Red Room features stained-glass windows as well as a tower of candles, pink and red orchids (the first lady’s favorite flower) and fresh cranberries, a long-standing tradition in this space. The official gingerbread White House in the State Dining Room weighs 300 pounds and includes a sugar cookie reproduction of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.
A new menorah, constructed of wood removed from the White House during the Truman-era renovation in the 1950s, now graces the Cross Hall, where the Marine Band was playing holiday favorites near an arch of gold glass balls.
In late morning, the first lady held a round table about education with children from National Guard families in the Roosevelt Room, where the mantel had Christmas lights and garlands. Biden talked about how much her late son Beau’s daughter, Natalie, had missed him over the holidays when he was deployed to Iraq. They also discussed favorite Christmas movies. The kids voted for “Home Alone” and “Elf.” “I like the Snoopy one,” said Biden.
Planning for the Christmas decorations began last spring. (Imagine having to come up with 8 different holiday themes for a two-term presidency!) For her first go-round at the holiday decoration gig last year, Jill Biden’s theme was “Gifts from the Heart” and there were crackling fires throughout the mansion. The rooms, which smelled like fresh evergreens, were filled with shooting stars and peace doves. The gingerbread house honored the country’s front-line workers, depicting a hospital, police station and fire station.
Each first lady puts her own spin on the holidays with themes, greens, garlands and insider stories reflecting both the times and their personalities.
Pat Nixon displayed a dollhouse made for Rutherford B. Hayes’s daughter under one of the trees. Betty Ford introduced the traditional cranberry tree topiary in the Red Room in 1975, says former White House chief floral designer Laura Dowling.
Things aren’t always perfect. During Rosalynn Carter’s watch, chief floral designer Dottie Temple made della Robbia style pyramids stacked with fresh apples, lemons, limes and kumquats for the State Dining Room. When Washington had one of its typical mid-December heat waves, fruit flies took over the room, according to Temple’s memoir “Flowers White House Style,” written with Stan Finegold.
And Nancy Reagan insisted on metallic snowflake ornaments made by teens from a drug rehab program she supported, even though her decorator Ted Graber vetoed them, according to former chief flower designer Nancy Clarke’s book, “My First Ladies.”
Like many of us, the Bidens are having a busy holiday season now that masks don’t seem to be the party accessory of choice.
The White House residence staff has been in overdrive, with Naomi Biden’s nuptials on the South Lawn on Nov. 19, Joe Biden’s 80th birthday, the first lady and grandson Beau receiving the official White House Christmas tree and President Biden pardoning two turkeys in the Rose Garden. And on Thursday, Jon Batiste will perform for French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, and guests at the first official state dinner of this administration. The Bidens will also host a party for the Kennedy Center Honors, celebrating George Clooney, Gladys Knight and U2, among others, on Sunday.
According to Elizondo, the Macron soiree is the first-ever state dinner during the holiday season. This stretch, from November to the end of the year, Elizondo said, “is our Super Bowl.”
Asked whether he and the White House staff were exhausted, Elizondo replied, with pep, “No, we are not tired. We are full of caffeine.”