At the White House, the joy is in the details. We are directed to revel in the tiny things.
When the holiday decorations were unveiled Monday morning, that enormous Fraser fir in the Blue Room attracted most of the attention. It’s the official White House Christmas tree and it’s the one that arrives with great fanfare by horse-drawn wagon for the first lady to inspect and marvel over. And, just as it is every holiday season, this year’s tree is magnificent. In keeping with the theme of “Gifts From the Heart,” it’s decorated with peace doves, along with gilded banners embossed with the names of all the states and territories, along with the District of Columbia.
But in a White House tasked with creating a sense of celebration in the midst of a doggedly evolving virus, a host of societal woes that threaten to overwhelm our belief in goodness and a divisiveness that only seems to grow, grand gestures can seem more like hubris than optimism. Splashy displays can be unnerving distractions rather than reassuring flashes of light. The revelry is in the intimacy.
The decorations honor family, faith and community with Christmas trees in the East Room adorned with thank-you notes that people have written to the first couple. In the State Dining Room, front-line workers and essential businesses are given their due in a gingerbread Main Street featuring the White House, a school, a hospital, a firehouse, a police station, a grocery store and even a warehouse where all of those e-commerce orders were processed. On the East Landing, the members of the military, along with their families, are recognized for their service with an elegant gold star family tree. Thanks is bountiful.
Tucked into the smaller rooms and into the corners of the grand ones are grace notes that offer a measure of calm. The details stand out because each room gives them space. Nothing feels overstuffed or overwhelming. The decorations don’t brag, and they’re generous in their gratitude. There’s a special appreciation for the arts, for their humanity and intimacy at a time when we too often have stood apart.
The Vermeil Room is a celebration of the visual arts and its centerpiece is Alma Thomas’s painting “Resurrection.” Thomas, who died in 1978, was an African American artist who received her accolades late in life. When she became the first African American woman to be given a solo show at the Whitney Museum of Art, she was 81 years old. She was a testament to perseverance and hope. “Resurrection” is an abstract work she created using her signature dappled brushstrokes in which a magical blur of color simulates the glory of a flower garden in full bloom. The painting, with its bold colors, inspired this room and it lends its optimism to the space.
It shares the room with wreaths constructed of paintbrushes and tabletop installations featuring color swatches and the hard tools of an artist. The humility of the decorations underscore the ability of the arts to create masterworks out of a notion, a passing fancy, a feeling. Details can evoke . . . everything. A few bars of a melody, a few phrases of poetry or a few brushstrokes can reflect the universe even as they burrow deep into an individual’s heart.
The Red Room is dedicated to the performing arts, and there are ballet shoes posed on pointe atop tables and musical instruments rest on wooden chests. The setting reminds one of how much music shapes our mood and how dance can be a testament to freedom. It tells us that these things are important.
There are those who might find these decorations too simple. They don’t sweep you away on a tidal wave of a fantasy. There are no allées of red trees, no icy wonderlands. The decorations are hardly mundane, but sometimes they’re spare. A tabletop is set with nothing but a simple white poinsettia, sometimes a tree is decorated with little more than baubles and a coating of snow, every nook doesn’t contain a tree or a tchotchke. There’s room to breathe, which is what so many of us find challenging now.
The decorations aim to make you feel part of a national family rather than part of a family at war with itself. First lady Jill Biden, who is tasked with overseeing the decorations, has thrust her family into the forefront with replicas of her grandchildren’s stockings hanging from the mantel in the State Dining Room and photographs from her family album adorning the trees there, along with family pictures of previous presidents. The first family doesn’t look regal; they don’t look idyllic either. When they’re in formal attire, the snapshot is informal rather than stiffly posed. When they are at play – dressed as Santa and the Grinch – they’re rumpled. They are not Camelot. They aren’t regal. They look ordinary and ordinary is good enough. Ordinary, quite frankly, is miraculous.
A group of second-graders from Malcolm Elementary School in Waldorf, Md., were on hand to see the curtain go up on the decorations. So were puppets and characters from PBS Kids. But there was no cookie-making or card-making. There were no elaborate craft projects as was the tradition during the Obama years. Biden arrived in a floral-print dress and heels, settled onto a small bench and read the assembled children, many of whom have parents who serve in the military, “Don’t Forget, God Bless our Troops.” The book, which she wrote, was inspired by her grandchildren and their sadness and fear when their father Beau Biden was deployed. But it was the first lady’s story as much as it was theirs.
The holiday decorations fill the vast, stately house. The Green Room, which is dedicated to nature, is awash in deep purple orchids. The East Colonnade windows are filled with iridescent doves and shooting stars. The ceiling of the Grand Foyer glows with the silhouettes of snowflakes. The rooms are filled with light and life. There’s a bit of grandeur in that 18-foot Fraser fir. But there’s an abundance of unabashed hope.
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