WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Barack Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois, rose on a remarkable political trajectory that brought him, and his wife, Michelle, to the White House in 2009. With them came their daughters–Malia, age 11, and Sasha, age 9–and "grandmother-in-chief" Marian Robinson, the president’s mother-in-law.
Just four years before, home was a condominium in Chicago’s East Park View community. Now they welcomed Christmas in their newest home, the White House. Christmas at the White House was one of Mrs. Obama’s favorite experiences that year. And since she had never visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue during the holidays, it was completely new to her.
She wanted to share the White House Christmas magic with as many people as possible. Like Barbara Bush before her, she believed the White House was the People’s House, and planned Christmas accordingly.
For Christmas 2009, Mrs. Obama chose the theme "Reflect. Rejoice. Renew." She explained the theme was actually a long-standing tradition for her and the president.
Over the years, their commitment to reflect, rejoice and renew brought the Obama family strength and joy. Now Mrs. Obama chose her own family’s theme as the holiday theme for the country, and she hoped it would reap the same positive benefits that her own family did.
There were important considerations that she took into account for the holiday planning. A proponent of healthy eating, the first lady took great pride and pleasure in the White House garden, which her family had planted with the help of schoolchildren from a local elementary school. Mrs. Obama wanted to find a way to bring the goodness of the garden into the holiday decorations.
She also wished to find innovative ways to reuse existing ornaments. She turned to Simon Doonan, the creative director at Barneys department store in New York City, to execute her 2009 vision.
Fitting the Recycled Theme
Doonan began the trip to the White House warehouse, in an undisclosed location in Maryland, where seasonal items like holiday decorations are stored. Sorting through the Christmas decorations, Doonan identified hundreds of large plastic balls that could be recycled to fit the theme for 2009. These would be used for the official Blue Room tree.
The original plan was to have the balls painted by young children from all over the United States. The first lady revised this idea, preferring that the plastic balls be decorated by artists of all ages, with each one illustrating an important place or historic monument. And instead of painting the balls, the artists were asked to decoupage the ornaments with pictures representing their subject.
When they shipped the plastic ornaments, the White Hose staff even included a jar of Mod Podge, a clear glue that is painted directly over the picture, to make sure the job got done.
Sixty community groups across the country were each sent 10 of the recycled ornaments. One group consisted of students from the Chancellor Avenue School, an elementary school in Newark, N.J. Once named the most dangerous city in America, Newark was fighting to turn itself around and the students at Chancellor were working hard in school to do their part.
Recommended by a member of President Obama’s urban-policy working group, the Chancellor Avenue School was elated at the opportunity to help the Obamas celebrate Christmas. Ten students were rewarded for their academic and artistic commitment and each was given a ball to decoupage. They made ornaments representing the state Capitol in Trenton, the New York Giants’ new stadium in the Meadowlands and their own school building.
The Chancellor Avenue School ornaments joined others representing national treasures like the Kennedy Space Center, Mount Rushmore and even Davy Crockett’s birthplace on the evergreen branches of the Blue Room tree.
There were 600 recycled ornaments altogether. The ornaments were strung on blue ribbon, on which Girl Scout troops had hand embroidered the words "reflect, rejoice, renew" in several languages. Wide gold ribbon encircled the tree, culminating with a big bow as a tree topper.
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Coleen Christian Burke is an interior decorator who was part of the White House decorating team in 2008. She is the founder of Sugar Plums, a design and decor business in New Jersey. She is a former television producer for media outlets such as CBS, CNBC and Access Hollywood, as well as an on-air entertainment reporter for Extra!, MSNBC and Fox News.
Buy the book, "Christmas with the First Ladies: The White House Decorating Tradition from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama":