Author and designer Coleen Christian Burke has worked with several First Ladies to bring together their unique vision of Christmas at the White House. Here she divulges what really happens behind the scenes and why the First Lady is 'the Commander-in-Chief of Christmas'
In a tradition dating back to Jackie Kennedy, Melania Trump unveiled her theme for the White House Christmas decorations at the weekend, announcing on Instagram and Twitter that she’d been inspired by ‘The Spirit of America’.
The First Lady wrote: ‘“The Spirit of America” is shining in the @WhiteHouse! I am delighted to share this beautiful exhibit of patriotism for all to see, and excited for everyone to experience the beauty of the #Christmas season!’
Her decorations include a Gold Star Family Tree in the East Wing, which was decorated with stars and ribbons by Gold Star families who have lost family members serving in the armed forces.
In the State Dining Room, Mrs Trump unveiled a gingerbread replica of the White House, accompanied by other major US landmarks including the Golden Gate Bridge and Statue of Liberty.
Elsewhere, mantelpieces are adorned with garlands of red roses, paper stars hang from the ceiling and dozens of trees covered in artificial snow bring a truly Winter Wonderland feeling to the White House. It’s a return to tradition after last year, which saw the First Lady’s corridor of red trees criticised by many.
Coleen Christian Burke, author of Christmas with the First Ladies: The White House Decorating Tradition from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama, says this year’s patriotic theme is an ever popular, safe choice for the incumbent First Lady.
‘Patriotic themes are very, very popular with the American public and when the First Lady is decorating, that’s who she has in mind,’ explains Burke. ‘The eyes of the world see the decorations but really, the First Lady is thinking about the American people who will come and tour the White House, and those who will see it through the media. I think this year’s display will strike a popular note with the American people.’
Burke explains that the scale and lavishness of the White House decorations was stepped up under Nancy Reagan, and has been maintained by every First Lady since then.
‘The First Lady sees this as her gift to the American public. They always design with the intention of being aspirational and accessible so some of the styles — like this year’s white, snowy look — will be quite easy for people to copy in their own homes.'
This year's official White House Christmas tree stands at more than 18 feet tall in the Blue Room, and is decorated with handmade paper flowers representing every state. Burke explains that it is customary for all the White House trees to be real — 'the only exception was for President Reagan and President Clinton. They had allergies so the tree in the West Wing was artificial.'
So how seriously does the First Lady take this part of her job description?
‘I first joined the decorating team in 2008 with Laura Bush and I was stunned that she was on the floor of the White House decorating with us. Since then, I’ve been shocked to find that every First Lady really puts her heart and energy into the decorating, bringing her own stamp to the design.
‘Hillary Clinton would reinvent the Christmas decor every year; she’d work with stylists and designers to make it interesting. That was a completely different approach to Mrs Reagan, for example, who developed her own style and then repeated it for eight years.’
The brainstorming around themes and colour palettes begins in February and each year, an army of volunteers helps the First Lady to bring her vision to life. The ballot to take part opens in the summer and great care is taken to ensure that representatives from every state and walk of life are chosen.
‘It’s like Christmas decorating on steroids,’ says Burke, who was a design partner to Michelle Obama in 2014. ‘You work for three days in a warehouse before Thanksgiving and then you have three days in the White House to install the decorations.
'Your call time is at around 7.30am and you work until around 3.30pm but whenever the President comes through you have to clear the decks and stop work because of security. It’s a logistical feat! I always say the First Lady is the Commander-in-Chief of Christmas.’