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- Former First Lady of the United States
When John and Abigail Adams threw the first White House Christmas party in 1800, there was no tree at all. Yet history tells us there was no outrage. In 1835, the children of Andrew Jackson’s household had an indoor snowball fight with cotton balls, but there seems to have been no comment. Likewise in 1903, when Teddy Roosevelt’s young son Archie sneaked a decorated tree from his closet into the family festivities, which would otherwise have been treeless. A bored press covered this whimsical event, but without critique.
As the years went by, White House Christmases became ever more decked out. It will surprise no one that the first National Tree Lighting ceremony in 1923 was presided over by Mr. Christmas himself, Calvin Coolidge. Photos of the era attest to garish, somewhat lopsided, tinsel-laden trees gracing the White Houses of FDR and Eisenhower. It wasn’t until the elegant Jackie Kennedy took matters in hand and debuted the “theme” holiday tree (“The Nutcracker”) in 1961, that White House decorating became a Big Thing.
During the 60 years since, the number of bedecked trees in The People’s House swelled to the current 41 (one can only suppose there are trees in the restrooms). First ladies from Lady Bird Johnson to Michelle Obama presided over Yuletide extravaganzas that included “The American Flowers Tree” (Pat Nixon, 1969) and “All Creatures Great and Small” (Laura Bush, 2002). These decorations remained mostly apolitical, Season’s Greetings to America.
All that changed with the arrival of the Trumps to DC in 2016. Whether by design or not, Melania Trump’s tenure as Christmas Queen was a very controversial one. It might have been her husband’s insistence that Christmas was in danger of being cancelled altogether that focused the eyes of the country on Mrs. Trump’s decorating choices. And what choices they were! A flock of blood-red trees in an eerie white landscape seemed, to some, (roughly half the country) chic and appropriate, to the rest as, well, blood-red and eerie. It didn’t help that a leaked report quoted Melania as not caring a (expletive) bit about any of it. In subsequent years the Trump décor was more muted, but the initial impression lingered on.
Fast forward to Christmas 2021. It’s a different kind of Christmas for sure, with tons of pandemic precautions and no White House tours. Current First Lady Jill Biden has stepped up to the holiday plate with her decorating choices nonetheless. “Gifts From the Heart” is her theme, replete with doves representing national peace and unity. Her trees are far more traditional; even, to some viewers, bland.
Predictably in this fractured time, everyone is taking sides. Twitter weighed in, as Twitter does. Supporters were gushing: “Merry Christmas, such a wonderful start to the season! Thank you for bringing back a normal American Christmas to the White House, it was missed for a few years!” and “Thank you so much for decorating the White House in a way that doesn’t require hours and hours of therapy later.” Detractors, on the other hand, were not: “Where’s the color? Looks like a giant tree with night lights over it.” “That tree is ugly.” “I know I am going to miss Melania’s stunning decorating skills.”
It appears that the War on Christmas is real, but it isn’t a battle over representations of Baby Jesus. Instead, the two most recent First Ladies have been squared off as foes by a nation eager to cheer, or jeer, for one faction or the other. Were the Melania trees really that terrible? Are the Jill ornaments really that blah? More importantly, do we need to use the elements of a national holiday celebration to score political points?
Maybe we’d do well as a country to stop tearing each other apart for our decorating decisions. Maybe we can all unite around one core belief, and bring America together again: cotton ball snowball fights are a dumb idea.