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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas at the White House "Mamie Style"

The official portrait of Mamie Eisenhower wearing her
1953 Inaugural Gown in Mamie Pink. 
One of the loveliest of first lady portraits.
I was puzzled when I came across a new book about Christmas at the White House.  The author chose as her starting point the tenure of Jackie Kennedy.  Now, I have nothing but good things to say about Jackie, and I found the book quite interesting, but if you really want a starting point for holiday decorating at the White House, you simply must start with Mamie Eisenhower.

The first time I ever really considered the combination of two of my favorite topics, the White House and Christmas, I was probably about nine years old.  It was at that time that I discovered a book by J. B. West, Chief Usher of the White House.  Upstairs at the White House chronicled West's time as "the most powerful man in Washington, next to the President", as Jackie Kennedy called him.  It was an insider's view but, unlike many books written today, shed much light on what life in the Executive Mansion was really like without betraying any confidences.  I can't count the number of times I read this book, I absolutely loved it.

Halloween in the State Dining Room during the
Eisenhower Administration.

It was in West's book that I learned that, while Christmas had certainly been a big affair at the White House before, it was Mamie Eisenhower who let her love of the holidays overtake the mansion.  It wasn't just Christmastime, either.  Mamie put cornstalks and jack-o-lanterns throughout the rooms of the State Floor at Halloween, leprechauns and four leaf clovers at St. Patrick's Day and pink bunnies bursting out of Easter eggs in the spring.  Reflecting the taste and style of her time, Mrs. Eisenhower's holiday taste seemed more fun than formal, and probably brought life to the historic house.  Interestingly, as the wife of a five-star general, Mamie was known for the pomp and pageantry of her White House functions, but didn't let spit and polish overwhelm a more down-to-earth hospitality.  She was, in short, an interesting combination of her very American Midwestern and Western roots and the influence of years moving in the highest echelons of both American and European society.

A 1950's era White House Christmas tree in the
East Room.

Christmas in the Eisenhower White House was filled with good cheer and plenty of red, white and green.  Ropes of holly and greenery surrounded the columns in the Cross Hall, while trees dripping in tinsel were to be found in the East Room and in the family's private quarters.  In one year, 27 trees could be found throughout the mansion, rivaling today's impressive Christmas adornments.  Wreathes were in each of the windows, and red ribbons hung from the glittering crystal chandeliers.  Beautifully lit trees were placed on each side of the main entrance to the house, brightening the North Portico throughout the season.  To ensure that the holiday spirit was never let down, Christmas carols were piped throughout the house, probably courtesy of the Eisenhower's favorite entertainer, Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians.

In 1960, for their last Christmas in the White House, the Eisenhower's entertained their extended family to a holiday celebration centered on dinner in the cheerfully decorated State Dining Room.  Family-centered at heart, Mamie wanted to share their last presidential holiday in the surroundings she so enjoyed.  It's hard to imagine any other first lady who has enjoyed being mistress of the White House more than Mamie Eisenhower.

Christmas in the State Dining Room, 1960.

Today, a White House Christmas is not just an interesting event, it's big business.  Books have been written, annual television specials are produced and the White House Historical Association puts out a new ornament each year.  But, it seems to me that there was an innocence to the Eisenhower holidays that's been lost in the ensuing years.  To look at pictures snapped of the presidential tree in those years is to see the same kind of Christmas that most Americans celebrated, perhaps on a larger scale, but in similar style.  Today, the White House celebrates Christmas in spectacular style, quite unlike anything I can aspire to, but great fun nonetheless.  Regardless of which you prefer, it's hard not to delight in Christmas at the White House!

The 2011 White House Christmas Tree
in the Blue Room.

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