The White House Christmas Tree is on display in the Blue Room of the White House during a press preview of holiday decorations at the White House, Monday, in Washington. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

The White House Christmas Tree is on display in the Blue Room of the White House during a press preview of holiday decorations at the White House, Monday, in Washington. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Comment: White House halls decked simply, with tradition

These decorations aren’t an ode to American exceptionalism. They’re a celebration of our commonality.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

Amid the White House holiday decorations unveiled Monday morning, tucked into the pine boughs along a mantel in the China Room, are Biden family recipes for an apple crisp, along with directions for making Italian pizzelle that, according to the reproduced handwritten recipe card, was handed down from one Mrs. Jacobs. Windows in the Green Room are filled with golden bells that are really just inverted plastic cups spray-painted with gilding and attached to colorful satin ribbons. And an entire tree in the State Dining Room is decorated with the self-portraits of schoolchildren. The decorations are a combination of unabashed kitsch and schmaltz, do-it-yourself ingenuity and captivating fantasy, along with multiple iterations of first pets Commander and Willow.

The decorations are enticing and familiar. Impressive but not overwhelming. They’re a tonic.

They’re doing their best to serve as a visual and emotional respite from the bad news that sometimes feels so relentless that one wonders if the nation’s flags shouldn’t just remain at a permanent half-staff. They’re a break from the bad blood that has citizens looking at the folks across the fence line and calling them demons rather than neighbors. The mounds of fake snow, paper-wrapped fanciful birch trees and the handmade owls and fox are doing what holiday decorations are meant to do, which is to make people pause in delight, reclaim some lost childhood memory and consider for a moment the ways in which life really is good.

It took more than 150 volunteers a week to adorn the White House for the holidays using the theme “We the People.” While there are experts who oversee the transformation, it’s the volunteers who do the carting, draping and hanging. The reliance on volunteers isn’t specific to the Biden White House. It’s a long-standing tradition. Earnest Americans are the ones who wield the glue guns in this grand institution. They affixed pompoms and jingle bells to tiny foam trees that had been attached to mini ramekins and then painted gold. They hung wooden spoons dipped in faux frosting and rolling pins in the China Room. The philosophy behind this craft-making ingenuity is that anyone can decorate as the White House does. But, of course, that’s just a lovely fairy tale for all but those who are both extravagantly endowed with free time and an abundance of creative chutzpah. But no matter. It’s not so much that folks are expected to follow the White House, it’s that they could.

These decorations aren’t an ode to exceptionalism. They’re a celebration of commonality.

They’re a counterpoint to the grandeur of the White House. They don’t take one’s breath away; although the sparkling East Colonnade, with its trees sprouting from snow banks, each branch glinting with tiny mirrored disks, is a magical and elegant welcome. The decorations encourage visitors to breathe a bit easier.

There are few displays of cacophonous color. Many of the rooms take their inspiration from nature and the quiet that comes when the leaves and blossoms fade, the snow falls and it feels like the world goes silent. There’s beauty in the calm. When the world is so chaotic, there’s nothing more luxurious than stillness and quiet.

The Red Room celebrates faith. Not religion, doctrines or righteousness. The room is dominated by a tower of fuchsia orchids, one of the first lady’s favorite flowers, interspersed with candles. The windows have been filled with a facsimile of rose-colored glass that calls to mind a stain-glassed window in a house of worship. But it also emphasizes people’s beautiful, stubborn devotion to optimism which is at the root of faith.

The 2022 decorations include old traditions and new ones: the creche, the gingerbread house, the trees adorned with Gold Star ornaments in honor of the country’s service members. The White House Christmas tree, at 18 1/2 feet, scrapes the ceiling of the Blue Room. It’s decorated with the official birds of the states, territories and the District of Columbia. So many traditions have become fraught. And rightfully so. But these endure as new ones are added.

Throughout the White House, mirrored ornaments dance in the light. The administration is expecting 50,000 visitors this season and they will all be able to see themselves reflected in each corner of the White House; a reminder that as individuals, they’re part of … everything, or at least they can be. They can be part of the neighborly effort that goes into hanging pine boughs and making magic out of dollar store bargains. They are among the home cooks whipping up feasts from handed-down recipes and sharing those dishes with others. They’re responsible for filling childhoods — and adulthoods — with acts of kindness. Perhaps they’re not the ones who created these holiday traditions, but they’re the ones who can keep the faith that the best of them will endure and grow.

Everyone can see themselves as part of the holiday cheer. Everyone could use a little optimism, in the name of peace.

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. Follow her on Twitter @RobinGivhan.

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