“Christmas With the First Ladies” is an attractive addition to the plethora of books on the history of the White House.
Drawing on the materials from presidential libraries, Coleen Christian Burke has delved into history to put a human face on presidential Christmases as presented by our presidents and their wives.
It starts in 1961 with the first administration of John F. Kennedy, when Jacqueline Kennedy — better known to most as Jackie — put together her first Christmas in the White House. She was known for her sophistication and international experience, which was reflected in her Christmas gifts. As early as September, “a letter to the U.S. embassy in Paris indicates beautiful Chanel chiffon scarves were found and purchased for Mrs. Kennedy to give as presents.”
One of the great delights included in the book are personal pictures gathered from presidential archives.
Here at the private family Christmas in Florida, Jackie is not the glamorous first lady but a harassed young mother, dressed in a deep pink pajamas — and pearls — dealing with two lively children on Christmas morning.
Each first lady brings her own human touches to the White House. In the hard times of 1975, Betty Ford’s “Patchwork Christmas” trees were adorned with handmade decorations, done to be thrifty. Unfortunately, at the end they were more “expensive than the Christmas decorations” of the first ladies who preceded it.
In contrast, 11 years later, Nancy Reagan showed the country trees dripping with silver tinsel, fake snow and white lights during the “Christmas Special at the White House.” In 1983, she sat on the lap of gold-chain-festooned “The A-Team” star Mr. T — dressed as Santa Claus — who distributed gifts.
Barbara Bush was a grandmother when she came to the White House and entertained for children. In 1990, she used the “Nutcracker” ballet as the theme and the trees had porcelain dancers and dance slippers, including one pair of pointe shoes autographed by “members of the (Russian) Bolshoi Ballet.”
Another touch in “Christmas With the First Ladies” is a page dedicated to each first lady, with a favorite recipe or decoration.
Lady Bird Johnson gave us a Christmas cranberry salad mold, to be used “whenever you serve chicken or turkey.” Rosalynn Carter made inexpensive and easy ornaments out of small cone birthday hats. After stuffing them with peanuts, gum drops and candy canes, she hung them on lace ribbons amid hundreds of white crocheted stars.
For entertaining on a glittering level, Laura Bush’s “shimmering topiary champagne buckets” with silver balls can be made from items found at the local craft and home improvement stores.
Hillary Clinton was inspired by the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” and decorated with small miniature houses, needlepoint ornaments and edible cookies from culinary schools.
Pat Nixon decorated the chandeliers with greens and pine cones. Decades later, Michelle Obama put cranberry garlands around the necks of the caryatids that flank the Red Room’s fireplace and hung decoupage state ornaments from community groups around the U.S. on the Blue Room’s tree.
“Christmas” covers the history of the White House crèche, the gingerbread house — which every family gives its own personal touch, such as having Bo, the Obama’s dog, in front of the house.
The end result is a book that is rich with holiday spirit and brings the White House to life.
“Christmas With the First Ladies: The White House Decorating Tradition from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama” by Coleen Christian Burke; Insight Books, San Rafael, Calif. (160 pages, $29.95)