A White (House) Christmas

It took four years and in the neighborhood of 300 letters, but Glen Ridge resident Coleen Christian-Burke finally got the call she had long been hoping for. She was invited by the White House florist to join the team of volunteers who would decorate for the 2008 holiday season. ”My road to the White House was even longer than President Obama’s,” jokes Christian-Burke, a former television producer, who now runs a seasonal decorating business called Sugar Plums.

After watching an HGTV special about bedecking the executive mansion, Christian-Burke, 40, launched her campaign to join the crew. ”I sent letters everywhere, from the department of parks and recreation to my local congressman,” she says. ”I sent photos, sketches, I tried everything I could think of.” Christian-Burke isn’t sure which pitch was the charm, but when the call came, the journalistic spirit from her television background kicked in. She quickly researched past White House decorations, loaded her glue gun, and hit the road.

After receiving security clearance, she reported for work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with 40 other decorators. Holiday decorating is the domain of the First Lady—in this case, Laura Bush—so led by the White House florist, the group had four days to create Mrs. Bush’s chosen theme: a red, white, and blue Christmas. After being briefed on their duties, the volunteers were driven to a warehouse in nearby College Park, Maryland, where they got to work gluing, painting, and assembling boughs of greenery (some of it faux), swathes of cotton for snow, miniature Christmas trees, topiaries, tree skirts, and approximately 400 bows to decorate nearly 30 trees, mantels, and entryways.

The cavernous warehouse was merely the dress rehearsal. ”This place was like the basement of the White House,” says Christian-Burke. ”It was stocked floor to ceiling with boxes of ornaments from previous holidays, and, just like you do at home, we had to dive in to see what could be reused in keeping with the theme.” Four days later, the crew reassembled to do it all again in two, 12-hour days at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. ”It was a bit of a marathon. There was a lot of ‘How will we get this done in time?‘ but we couldn’t dwell on that,” says Christian-Burke. While their work was in progress, the White House was in a shambles—ornaments, ribbons, and hooks all over the floor, lights and ”snow” everywhere.

Nancy Reagan favored baby’s breath to represent snow. Lady Bird Johnson was the first to put an angel on a White House tree. (Prior to the Johnson Administration trees had been topped with star-like snowflakes.) Betty Ford preferred handmade items such as corn husks and patchwork quilt decorations.

”At one point I’d nearly had it. I’m not fond of heights, and I had to climb the 22-foot scaffolding to hang garland,” says Christian-Burke. ”I told myself: Hey, it’s the White House; I’m going up. It’s a good thing I have three kids, and I’m used to playgrounds.”

During the decorating frenzy, Laura Bush came in to offer input. President Bush even stopped by to acknowledge the team’s good work and wish them well. ”I felt a remarkable sense of responsibility—even though it was just decorating—to know that people would come from all over to see what we had done,” says Christian-Burke. ”It was so rewarding to be a part of the White House’s remarkable history.”

Christian-Burke is turning her experience and research into a book about White House holiday decorating traditions since the Kennedy Administration. Have a White House Christmas will include rarely seen historical photos and how-to tips to help readers replicate the designs. Christian-Burke will be heading to the White House again this year to decorate for the Obamas.

Baubles, Balls, Bows, and Bells:
Top, a collection of hand-painted glass balls designed by an artist from each congressional district. Middle row, swags of handmade fife-and-drum decorations; silver topiary. Bottom row, left, a silver ice bucket filled with tulips; right, a mantel festooned with gold drums.

White House Coleen's Pics 246White House Coleen's Pics 127

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