Holiday Decorating Tips from the First Ladies


When it comes to decking the halls, the White House rocks the votes for holiday decorating done right. With more trees per room than most city parks, those political-types know how to lay down the law – and celebrate the season. 

Recently, I had a (nearly) first-hand glimpse at this festive tradition. Over the last year, I had the amazing opportunity to design the new book, Christmas with the First Ladies: The White House Decorating Tradition from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama. Along with vintage First Family photos, author Coleen Christian Burke–a member of the White House decorating team in 2008–profiles the First Ladies’ holiday design aesthetics, recreates their signature crafts and recipes, and sheds light on each administration’s yuletide style.

Here, Burke shares tips on how to Christmasfy your home like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:

Courtesy Anne Marie Caruso

1. Think Big! “The scale of the White House is much larger than the average American’s home (twenty foot doorways and trees towering between 15 and 18 feet), but the First Ladies fondness for decorating with larger items can still be fun in our humble abodes. Try Mrs. Barbara Bush’s idea to hang actual ballet slippers on the tree or Mrs. Ford’s ornament baskets. The ballet slippers can be embellished with rhinestones from the craft store, and the baskets can be filled with ornaments, flowers or Mrs. Ford’s favorite–gumdrops.”

Courtesy Anne Marie Caruso

2. Think Small! “Mrs. Kennedy loved miniature ornaments despite the large scale of the White House. During her time as First Lady miniature boxes were wrapped in coordinating wrapping paper and hung as ornaments on the official tree. For a modern twist, you can hide a treat in the box and encourage guests to take an actual present from the tree as a parting gift.”

Image courtesy of the Gerald Ford Library / Mrs. Ford and daughter, Susan, making homemade fabric ornaments for Christmas 1975.

3. Try fabric. “From Mrs. Kennedy on, the First Ladies chose a Christmas theme to decorate the White House. While a theme may seem like overkill in an overage home, giving decorations some thought before you drag them out of the attic/basement, can add a finished look to holiday decor. Fabric is one way to do this – it acts as a unifying element and adds a polished look to your home. You can use it on your tree as garland, on your mantel, staircase, and under your table centerpiece.”

Courtesy Anne Marie Caruso

4. Go Green. “Mrs. Nixon was a huge fan of using natural greens from the yard to decorate chandeliers. Evergreens can be draped across the arms of light fixtures for an elegant touch. One year Mrs. Reagan recycled the 25,000 Christmas cards she and the President received the year before and turned them into ornaments, by simply tying yarn around the cards and hanging them from the tree’s branches.”

Christmas with the First Ladies is available through Insight Editions.

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