12 Things You Never Knew About the White House Christmas Tree
'Tis the season! While families from all around the world are preparing to decorate their homes for the holiday season, it doesn't compare to the planning and preparations made to make the White House ready for Christmas. Here are all the things you didn't know about the White House Christmas tree, from former White House florist Laura Dowling.
The White House Christmas tree
The very first White House Christmas tree was set up in the second-floor Yellow Oval Room in 1889. At the time Benjamin Harrison was serving as the 23rd president of the United States. The tree was set up primarily for his grandchildren and decorated with candles and toys. Over the years, the White House Christmas tree has become a much bigger ordeal. Read on to learn a few little known facts about the festivities.
The Blue Room tree started with the Hoovers
First Lady Lou Henry Hoover started the unbroken tradition of having a Christmas tree set up in the Blue Room of the White House. In 1929 she made sure the first “official” tree was decorated with the most holiday cheer. These are the strange things that Presidents have banned from the White House, one year, Christmas trees did make the list.
The First Lady selects the annual theme
Selecting the decor of the White House during the Christmas season begins with the First Lady, a tradition that started with First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy in 1961. (She chose a “Nutcracker Suite” theme.) “[Kennedy’s] theme made a statement that was personal and meaningful; it was both fully representative of her elegant taste and articulated a uniquely American sense of style,” Laura Dowling wrote in her book, A White House Christmas. “Jackie Kennedy’s move opened up the door for every First Lady to put her own creative and personal stamp on the iconic White House Christmas.” Find out more fascinating facts about all of America’s First Ladies.
It takes a year to plan—and five days to execute
Believe it or not, it takes an entire year to plan the White House decorations. The process requires a lot of planning with sketches, different color palettes, design elements, and motifs for each space and room in the White House. Planning is also divided into three phases: design and development, creation and implementation, and project installation. Once concepts are pitched and presented to the First Lady, she then confirms the theme for the year, and the White House florist executes it within five days after Thanksgiving. “White House Christmas themes need to be both inspirational and practical, encompass concepts that capture a sense of the American spirit and resonate broadly—and they must translate into beautiful decorations that tell a cohesive story room by room,” says Dowling. “The best themes always coordinate well with the classical White House architecture and furnishings, are cognizant of White House traditions, and take into account the context of the current political and cultural environments.”
Volunteers are key
To make this strict deadline before the holiday season, over 100 volunteers help sort, set up, assemble, and hang White House Christmas tree ornaments each year. Volunteers come from all over the country for the opportunity to help, while also forgoing their Thanksgiving dinners with their families back home. These folks are selected in a very competitive and tough process that involves persistently sending passionate and heartfelt letters to White House officials. Find out the strange but true stories behind these White House Christmas ornaments.
Prep work is done offsite
Within the five-day installation period, the first two days after Thanksgiving are spent prepping and organizing all the decorations, wreaths, ribbons, tinsel, and flowers at the warehouse, where they’re stored, and the White House, where they’ll be presented. The following three days, the volunteers are brought in and separated into teams for each room in the White House. Each team is led by a team leader, who has professional decorating experience and who has decorated the White House in the past. On the last day, once everything is completed and cleaned, there is a final walk-through with the First Lady for her approval.
There are certain rules that must be followed to keep the White House a place of priceless American arts and a home for the President of the United States. According to Dowling, the official White House florist under the Obama Administration, “One year, a holiday volunteer inadvertently left a glitter-covered cloth on the 18th-century crèche that was awaiting installation in the East Room,” she wrote in A White House Christmas. “Another time, carpenters accidentally dropped a nail-studded two-by-four that was designed to hold a large garland above the gilt mirror in the Grand Foyer.” Yikes! Don’t miss the iconic American landmarks that almost weren’t.
It takes 25 people to decorate the tree
“The Blue Room tree often has its own theme (that connects to the overall White House Christmas theme) – e.g., ‘America the Beautiful’, ‘Joining Forces,’ ‘Winter Wonderland'” etc,” Dowling says. “Given the scope and size of the tree, we developed individual design schemes and project plans specifically for the Blue Room tree, sourced materials and managed interactive projects (requesting greeting cards from children or ornaments from artists across the country), and assigned a team of about 25 volunteers to decorate the tree.” The stories behind these White House ornaments are a piece of history.
The Christmas tree is selected in October
Every year, the White House Florist and the Association of American Christmas Tree Growers find the perfect tree that fits certain specifications. “The selection of the White House tree is a time-honored ritual and tradition that occurs each year in early October,” says Dowling. “The Association of American Christmas tree growers sponsors a contest where individual growers compete for the honor supplying the iconic Blue Room tree. A White House delegation travels to the farm, evaluates a couple of options for the Blue Room tree, and selects the additional 55+ trees that decorate the White House complex. We looked at overall height (the Blue Room tree has to be over 18 ½ feet tall), shape, and width (it has to fit through the North Portico and Blue Room doors), and evaluated the scent and branches—to ensure that the tree was fresh and would last throughout the holiday season.” Check out the secrets your Christmas tree wishes you knew.
Sometimes the tree is too big
Although the Association of American Christmas Tree Growers chooses the perfect tree for Christmas, one year the tree was just too big to fit in the White House. About 12 Park Service personnel had to carry the tree in the North Portico door and across from the Grand Foyer and Cross Hall into the Blue Room. Since the tree was just too big, a few doors to the White House had to be removed, while all the furniture and overhead chandelier were removed to accommodate the size of the Christmas tree. These unusual White House jobs are well-paid. Maybe consider applying!
First Family pets are included in the decorations
“Each year has its complexities and challenges, but there are definitely some years that stand out,” recalls Dowling. “The projects we developed in 2010 were notable for their scope and ambition: a replica of First Family dog Bo made from 40,000 coiled black and white pipe cleaners, a gilded oak leaf rosette door surround made from 1,500 hand-made roses crafted from fallen leaves, over 1,000 red velvet poinsettias made from recycled ribbon that we attached to garlands, wreaths and topiaries, Green Room decorations made from recycled newspaper, and giant, oversized wreaths made from natural fruits and gourds—involved intricate work and thousands of hours of volunteer effort.” She continues, “One of my favorite projects was the robotic versions of Bo and Sunny we crafted with the help of colleagues in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. The robotic dogs made a strong point about the value of linking design with new technologies—a priority of the Obama administration.”
More than 3,500 ornaments are used
During the Christmas season, over 3,500 ornaments (along with thousands of LED energy-efficient lights) are used to decorate various Christmas trees throughout the White House. The ornaments reflect the season’s theme, political point-of-view, regional symbols, and objects from all 50 states, and sometimes even strange things hidden in plain sight. “One story I like is how, for almost 40 years, a long-time volunteer has been hiding three glass ornaments on the Blue Room tree each year: a pig, frog and a pickle (signifying prosperity, progress, and good luck)—messages that are especially relevant on the White House stage.” Next, find out more facts about the White House you never knew.