Published: December 15, 2020
Since 1981, The White House Historical Association (WHHA) has designed and manufactured the official White House Christmas ornament. Collecting and giving these unique ornaments has become a holiday tradition for millions of Americans. The association is both nonprofit and nonpartisan, and sales of the ornaments support its mission to protect, preserve and provide public access to the history of the White House. With the holiday season upon us, we sat down with, Stewart D. McLaurin, WHHA president, to have a closer look at this enterprise, which has raised millions of dollars and sold more than one million ornaments annually.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy founded the WHHA in 1961. What did she have in mind?
She envisioned an organization that would educate and inspire Americans to take part in our shared history. She recognized the need to protect the historical legacy of the White House and provide private funding to maintain the museum standard she envisioned for the White House, as Congress was traditionally reluctant to fund such projects. She founded the association with the goal of preserving the White House’s rich history and providing public access and education for future generations of Americans.
When did the association begin designing the ornaments and who manufactures them?
The association began designing the Official White House Christmas Ornament in 1981. The ornament has been manufactured ever since by Beacon Design, a veteran-founded small business in Lincoln, R.I.
In addition to their retail distribution, are the ornaments featured on the official White House Christmas tree?
The Official White House Christmas Ornament is traditionally hung on a tree in the White House.
Are the ornaments designed in any particular order?
Each year’s Official White House Christmas Ornament honors either an individual president – we are working our way sequentially from Washington to present day – or a significant White House anniversary. For example, in addition to the presidents, we’ve celebrated the bicentennial anniversaries of the American presidency (1789), the laying of the White House cornerstone (1792) and the year the White House first served as home to the president (1800).
What does the Official 2020 White House Christmas Ornament honor?
The Official 2020 White House Christmas Ornament honors President John F. Kennedy’s time in the White House, and features his posthumous official White House portrait, made in 1970 by Aaron Shikler, the artist selected by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The reverse of the ornament features the dates of President Kennedy’s brief term, 1961-1963, on either side of an engraving of the White House.
There are many well-known portraits and photographs of JFK. Why was it decided to use the Aaron Shikler portrait of JFK looking down?
Shikler’s portrait is highly distinctive and unlike almost any other official presidential portrait, which is what First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy requested. Kennedy’s head is bowed and stands as a symbol of his unfinished presidency.
Tell us about Jackie Kennedy’s secret visit to the White House on February 3, 1971.
This visit was on the occasion of the portraits’ official unveiling, and was her first and only visit back to the White House since departing in 1963. Unsure about how she would feel reentering the house, Kennedy opted for a private tour with only President Richard Nixon and First Lady Patricia Nixon. Aside from the Nixons, only two people in the White House knew about her visit: chief usher Rex Scouten and White House curator Clement Conger.
Every four or eight years, we have a transition to a new US president. Does the interregnum ever affect the association’s endeavors?
The White House Historical Association has maintained close working relationships with every occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since its founding. While transitions do offer an opportunity to reflect on the history of the presidency, they do not have an effect on our ongoing nonpartisan mission to educate the public and preserve the legacy of the White House.
I have the 1990 ornament – the Blue Room. What is its significance?
The 1990 Official White House Christmas Ornament featuring the Blue Room is in fact honoring Martin Van Buren, 8th president of the United States, 1837-41. Congress gave him $20,000 for repairs to the mansion. In addition to installing central heating in the main rooms, he ordered the state parlors redecorated. Van Buren wanted the oval parlor to be blue and it has remained so ever since.
The 2016 ornament is interesting in that it features a fire truck. What is the story behind that?
The Official 2016 White House Christmas Ornament honors Herbert Hoover’s time in the White House. Hoover served as the 31st president of the United States from 1929 to 1933. It is inspired by the fire trucks that responded to the 1929 Christmas Eve fire at the White House and the toy engines presented to children by the Hoovers the following Christmas.
Is there a particular ornament design that speaks to you?
In this role I have had the privilege to work with the design for the past seven of the 40 ornaments, so those have special meaning to me. I started collecting them in 1981, never dreaming one day I would be responsible for these annual American treasures.
Beyond the holidays at the White House, what other programs or initiatives do you have on your 2021 calendar?
The year 2021 marks the 60th anniversary of the White House Historical Association, as well as the 10th anniversary of the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History. We have a range of special programming and commemorative products to celebrate this important milestone. Please visit our website at www.whitehousehistory.org.
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