By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post
Of all the norms, standards and traditions that the Trump administration has jettisoned and trampled, a couple of lucky Thanksgiving turkeys are still saved each year from meeting their maker and the White House Christmas tree continues to arrive in a horse-drawn wagon.
Perhaps these holiday rituals have endured because the stakes are so low. No one’s taxes will rise or fall because of them; no one’s citizenship is called into question; there’s no inconvenient science with which to grapple. It’s just a matter of gazing upon a Fraser fir from West Virginia or making light patter about a couple of Iowa-raised birds.
And for a few moments in late November, America turns its attention to keeping up the appearance of hearth-and-home conviviality. There’s a smidgen of solace in that: in the facade, the lie, the wishful thinking, the distraction, the delusion, the hope.
President Trump has been more than willing to take a hatchet to the pillars of democracy by, most recently, refusing to concede the election. But the pardoning of the national Thanksgiving turkey went forward Tuesday afternoon without incident. The first lady has been captured on audiotapes expressing her disdain for having to contend with Christmas decorations, but nonetheless she stood outside the White House on Monday afternoon in her heels and houndstooth coat to welcome the arrival of the official Christmas tree.
It’s surprising that the first couple bothers. The turkey-pardoning ceremony requires a certain willingness to look silly and to exhibit a sense of humor, skills that Trump has not revealed himself to have. And for a man who likes to be serenaded with cheers and adulation, the turkeys can’t praise him for his benevolence. But at least they can’t boo.
As White House events go, these two — involving turkeys and a tree — are arguably the most understated. The dress code doesn’t involve tuxedos or ballgowns. They aren’t held against the backdrop of dozens of American flags and with a soundtrack of military marches echoing in one’s ears. There are no hordes of dignitaries, and they are blessedly brief. These traditions are as free from politics as anything can be that is hosted by a politician.
They don’t require much heavy lifting. They are ceremonial of the lowest order. They simply require that one shows up.
And so the president walked hand-in-hand with the first lady into the recently refurbished Rose Garden, where he addressed about 100 people who were mostly masked. He celebrated the Dow Jones industrial average reaching a record high, remarked upon the imminent arrival of the first doses of the coronavirus vaccine and then turned his attention to the birds; only one of which, Corn, was present. (The backup bird, Cob, was absent.)
“Thanksgiving is a special day for turkeys,” the president said. “I guess, probably, for the most part not a good one when you think about it.”
Then Trump pardoned Corn, which he did by holding his hand above the bird and pronouncing it spared. Afterward, Trump’s grandchildren, who were in the audience, stepped up to Corn’s leaf-bedecked roost and gave the bird a pet. By then, the president and first lady had departed. The ceremony, after all, was finished. And they had shown up.
The first lady had also shown up the day before. She was alone when the White House Christmas tree arrived and she had the awkward duty of accepting it, which essentially means smiling for the cameras while admiring it with great interest. Melania Trump was not wearing a mask when she chatted with the coachmen who were, but she was actually wearing her coat, rather than leaving it draped over her shoulders, as has been her preferred style.
It was impossible to watch her express such delight over the tree’s arrival when her disdain for Christmas decorations had been conveyed so vividly in an audio recording of a conversation that she had with her former friend and aide Stephanie Winston Wolkoff and that aired on CNN.
“Who gives a f*** about Christmas stuff and decorations?” Melania Trump was heard saying. “But I need to do it, right?”
To be fair, there are probably countless overwhelmed adults — parents, in particular — who have had moments of angry frustration at the thought of having to devote time and effort into decorating their home for the holidays to meet outsize expectations about what it means to celebrate Christmas. Surely there were other first ladies who came to the White House after sitting on boards or writing legal briefs and were aggravated to discover that their value would, in part, be measured in yards of pine bunting and pounds of marzipan.
But Melania Trump’s scorn was audible, and it filled a void that existed because her “Be Best” campaign to improve the lives of children remains sketchy. She has committed to a personal image defined by inscrutability. The only thing the country knows for sure is that she’s the first lady who hates Christmas decor.
But she was right in one regard. This “stuff” is necessary, not because it’s policy or life changing, but because it’s part of the ceremony. It’s connective tissue. It’s something pleasant in the midst of a world of awful. It’s not hard. And the least this White House can do is show up.
Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.