A Walk in the White House

ON THIS DATE 14 years ago, I was in the White House.

Well, I was one of the “tens of thousands of visitors” who throng the official home of the President of the United States every December when the White House opens its doors to the public to view its Christmas decorations.

Fortunately for me, that day was particularly designated for members of the diplomatic community so we could enjoy the walk through the grand house and even take photographs (photography is otherwise prohibited).

The White House holiday festivities carry a theme each year. In 1998, it was “Winter Wonderland”. This was the message from President Clinton and Mrs Clinton on the program booklet.

“Dear Friends, 

It gives us great pleasure to welcome you to the White House. 

This is the sixth year we have had the honour of spending the holidays in the White House. Each year, we marvel at the beauty of winter in our Nation’s capital – the magic of the White House at his special time fills us with wonder. 

This year, we wanted to transform the White House into a Winter Wonderland. We have so many fond memories of our childhood winters. Through the eyes of children we relive the pleasure of playing in the first snowfall, the silver glint of skate blades on a frozen pond, breathless sled rides down a glistening slope and lopsided snowmen with carrots for noses, destined to melt in the morning sun. No matter what your age, nothing is more beautiful than the stillness of a starry winter evening – especially on Christmas Eve – when snow blankets the street and the world is calm and bright. 

To capture these wonderful images of winter, we invited artists from across the country to craft ornaments in the spirit of the season – from miniature snowmen, to tiny skis, skates and toboggans, to colourful mittens and hats. 

As you wonder through this Winter Wonderland, we hope you will relive your own precious memories of the holidays. May you and your loved ones have a happy, healthy New Year, and may the joy of the season always be with you. 

Signed, Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton” 

Left: A choir – “one of the musical groups from across the country who have been invited to fill the rooms with their joyous sounds” – greeted visitors; Right: The East Room turned into “an enchanted glittering wonderland where 18 soaring conical trees and a traditional Advent wreath were handmade with gold holly, shimmering white natural branches and assorted pine cones.”

Left: A choir – “one of the musical groups from across the country who have been invited to fill the rooms with their joyous sounds” – greeted visitors; Right: The East Room turned into “an enchanted glittering wonderland where 18 soaring conical trees and a traditional Advent wreath were handmade with gold holly, shimmering white natural branches and assorted pine cones.”

(L) The Red Room; (R) The Green Room which “is used throughout the year for small teas and receptions”.

(L) The Red Room; (R) The Green Room which “is used throughout the year for small teas and receptions”.

Another room where a haunting portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy was hung; the official portrait of the former first lady painted by artist Aaron Shikler;

Another room where a haunting portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy was hung; the official portrait of the former first lady painted by artist Aaron Shikler; a portrait of George Washington, one of the Founder Fathers of the US and the first President, painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1797.

While I went on my own, I bumped into hubby’s colleague and his family.

While I went on my own, I bumped into hubby’s colleague and his family.

L-R: Santa in the House; the official Christmas tree in the Blue Room; the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse just south of the White House.

L-R: Santa in the House; the official Christmas tree in the Blue Room; the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse just south of the White House.

Worth noting is that there is an official White House Christmas tree and it normally stands in the Blue Room. According to the 1998 program booklet, “the eighteen-foot balsam fir was presented to the President and Mrs Clinton by Silent Night Evergreens in Endeavor, Wisconsin… the tree is decorated with interpretations celebrating Winter Wonderland from artists across the nation. Snowmen from all fifty states were made by individuals recommended by the Governor of each state. The warmth of the room is captured with knitted mittens and hats from members of The Knitting Guild of America, and the thrill of winter sports is depicted in colorful wooden ornaments made by artists from the Society of Decorative Painters. The green velvet handmade tree skirt was designed by individuals from each of the fifty states, territories and the District of Columbia in celebration of the Clinton family’s first holiday season at the White House.”

I can’t recall how and why I missed (!) the 1999 event which was themed “Holiday Treasures”.

The theme for 2000 was “Holiday Reflections”. The program booklet carried the Clintons’ final message.

“The majestic beauty of the White House is evident every year, but even more so when it comes to life with the spirit of the holidays. When we pause to reflect on our family’s eight unforgettable years at the White House, our memories turn most fondly to the joyous holiday seasons we have shared. As we prepare to leave this grand house, we thank all who have made the holidays so special, not only for us, but also for the tens of thousands of visitors who come to share in its lively holiday splendor. We especially pay tribute to the countless artists and volunteers who have transformed the White House into a showcase rich with the creative spirit of our great Nation – from the talented craftsmen who fashioned handmade ornaments for the Blue Room tree to the devoted designers and volunteers who have decked the halls of the White House each November. We have enjoyed watching the joy and amazement in the children’s eyes as they wonder through the house every year. It is with great pleasure that we invite you to embark with us on a reflection of holidays past at the White House. 

Signed, William Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton”

The year 2000 was our final year in Washington DC. I pestered hubby to go for the holiday tour, this time taking along our little girl, despite it being a cold rainy day, all so our daughter could one day declare, “Been there done that!”

Alas, she will have little recollections of that visit as she was barely five months old and the only pictures we had of her were taken just outside the White House, all bundled up to keep her warm.

L-R: Leaving the White House after my 1998 solo visit; Two years later, with daughter and hubby; The National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse, sporting different decorations from previous years.

L-R: Leaving the White House after my 1998 solo visit; Two years later, with daughter and hubby; The National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse, sporting different decorations from previous years.

Besides the official Christmas tree in the Blue Room, there’s a National Christmas Tree placed on the Ellipse, a park south of the White House which has its loyal following. Every year, a December date is set aside for the President to officially flick its lights on (reportedly a tradition for nearly eight decades), marking the Pageant of Peace which features musical entertainment from 6-8:30pm nightly for three weeks. The tree-lighting also marks the start of Washington’s holiday season. The 1999 lighting ceremony reportedly attracted 4,000 people.

The 2000 National Christmas Tree was a 40-feet Colorado blue spruce decorated with 125,000 lights (enough to light up more than 500 Christmas trees). It was surrounded by 56 trees representing the 50 states, 5 territories and the District  of Columbia. The tree, described as “the most pampered Christmas tree” had “as many as 1,000 people working on it year-round…much like elves”. (Source: The Washington Post, 10 Dec 2000)

Advertisements

Party in the Park

FATHER FROST AND Snow Maiden descended on our building again on this day in 2006.

A letter came from our building management informing the children about it. It said: “Dear kids, we have received news from the North that Father Frost and Snow Maiden are going to visit on 16 December. They invite you to the performance which will take place in our Park, 12-2pm. You will see the show “Three Little Pigs” and together with heroes of this story, take part in games and competitions.”

The 2006 event was quite a party in the park. Bundled up in our winter clothes, adults and children played along with Father Frost and Snow Maiden as the story of “The Three Little Pigs” was told in Russian. It didn’t really matter that we only understood chut chut, the kids still had mnogo fun, especially when it was time to receive their presents from Father Frost; so long as they know how to say “ya hachu” (I want) and “spasiba” (thank you).

Party06The three little pigs and the big bad wolf in our park in 2006.

PigsL-R: Father Frost relating the story as the children played along; Michelle and Carolin took a picture with the “stars” of the show; we all played our parts too.

Ded Moroz & SnegurochkaMichelle got another photo opportunity with Father Frost and Snow Maiden.

The year before (17 Dec 2005), it was held indoors, with performances including a magic show, a contortionist and a live python! Father Frost and Snow Maiden were dressed in white.

Party05

The year after (15 Dec 2007), the building management organised another party in the park themed “Snow Maiden’s Adventure”. This time Father Frost gave out gifts of rat soft toys.

Party07Loads of entertainment in the park in 2007.  

RatsGroup photo with Father Frost, Snow Maiden and the Rat – the mascot for the coming year; the kids happy with their stuffed rodents.

The annual celebration was held in conjunction with the New Year (1 January), Christmas (celebrated in Russia on 7 January), and also Chinese New Year (thus for two years, Father Frost came bearing stuffed toys of animals of the coming CNY).

The traditionally white-bearded and red-caped Father Frost (also called Grandfather Frost or Ded Moroz in Russian) is the Russian Santa. Snow Maiden (or Snegurochka in Russian) is sometimes referred to as Ded Moroz’s grand-daughter.

However, there are differences between Ded Moroz and Santa Claus, as pointed out in an article “Russian Grandfather Frost” in Passport magazine 2007.

“Firstly, Ded Moroz never enters the house through the chimney. Secondly, he always puts presents directly under the tree and never into socks. Thirdly, he does not ride a deer. The official story claims that he walks through the forests and carries his huge sack of presents on his back.”