Jill Biden Unveils a Crafty, Candy-Filled White House Christmas

Haiyun Jiang for The Washington Post
The White House holiday decorations were unveiled to the media on Monday with the theme “Magic, Wonder, and Joy.”

While it’s easy for adults to become jaded about holiday decorations – whether it’s because of the cost, the hassle or the inescapability of it all – children tend to feel unbridled excitement over the bright lights and the promise of toys. It’s that glee that the White House wants to capture with this year’s sparkling holiday display, with its “Magic, Wonder, and Joy” theme.

“It is a time for our senses to awaken – for each of us to smell the aroma of favorite family recipes, to hear the warmth of a dear friend’s voice, to see the glow of lights and decorations, to taste the sweetness of candies and treats, and to feel the quiet stillness and strength of faith,” first lady Jill Biden writes in her introduction to this year’s Holidays at the White House booklet.

While the Bidens were eating turkey and shopping in Nantucket over Thanksgiving, a dedicated crew back in Washington worked on yuletide trimming. Three hundred volunteers – one of the highest numbers in recent history – from across the country came together to bring the vision to life. The glittering offerings include 98 Christmas trees fitted with 33,892 ornaments; 142,425 holiday lights adorning the trees, mantels and historic moldings; and 14,975 feet of ribbon.

Despite the grandeur and sheer volume of decorations and volunteers, though, the White House’s holiday display has one thing in common with a regular home: the rush to get everything done in time. “We were scrambling a bit” to complete everything before the Bidens returned, says Carlos Elizondo, White House social secretary. “We did some final touches and some final things, and then they came down and they loved it.”

Upon entering the White House from the East Wing, visitors walk through the East Colonnade – perhaps most famously known as the site of former first lady Melania Trump’s forest of 40 blood red topiary trees. This year, the hall features large, cheerful depictions of holiday candies and confections dangling from the ceiling, twinkling lights and candy cane columns. The effect is much like a child’s holiday daydream.

Haiyun Jiang for The Washington Post
Enormous candies and treats dangle from the ceiling of the White House’s East Colonnade, buttressed by candy cane columns.

Reading, a major focus for the first lady, is highlighted in many of the rooms. The Library displays vignettes that celebrate the tradition of holiday bedtime stories, including a cozy brass bed with a cat that resembles Biden pet Willow snoozing on top of it. Stacks of children’s books surround the scene, with stars and moons hanging above.

Haiyun Jiang for The Washington Post
The White House’s library displays vignettes that celebrate the tradition of holiday bedtime stories.

The official 2023 White House gingerbread house honors the 200th anniversary of the publication of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” more commonly known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” with a giant sugar cookie representation of the book. Work began on the creation in late October, says White House executive pastry chef Susan E. Morrison. The finished product includes 40 sheets of sugar cookie dough, 40 sheets of gingerbread dough, 90 pounds of pastillage, 30 pounds of chocolate and 50 pounds of royal icing.

Haiyun Jiang for The Washington Post
The White House gingerbread house is inspired by the 200th anniversary of the publication of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Work began on the creation in October.

An almost life-size reproduction of Santa’s sleigh and reindeer from the age-old story hang from the top of the Cross Hall. White House carpenters created scaffolding to secure the sleigh’s cables, because they cannot drill into the historic building fabric, according to the first lady’s office.

The centerpiece – an 18 1/2-foot Fraser fir from Fleetwood, N.C. – stands floor to ceiling in the Blue Room. Fitting for the home of someone known as Amtrak Joe, there’s a re-creation of a vintage passenger train circling the tree. It rides through rainbow forests of bottle-brush trees and tiny towns. Ornaments of homes and neighborhoods depicting the 50 states, territories and the District of Columbia decorate the branches.

Haiyun Jiang for The Washington Post
A train at the base of the White House’s Blue Room tree circles a forest of rainbow-colored bottle brush trees.

The East Room, the largest room in the White House, is filled with three-dimensional, multistory interactive advent calendars that resemble the People’s House. Each evening, someone will open the window corresponding to that day. The first lady will be among the participants, and her social media accounts will share photos from the events.

“Behind each window, there’s a little surprise,” says Dennis Setteducati, a volunteer from New York. He and his partner, Andrew Boza, DIY experts known as the Crafty Lumberjacks, helped decorate the White House over the past couple of days.

Boza loved being selected for the gig. “No matter if the task felt a little tedious at times, we were all just in such good spirits. Everyone was smiling,” he says.

The Red Room celebrates crafters and DIY holiday creations. Children of military and veteran families created the ornaments for the room’s trees, and they will be able to visit the White House to see their handiwork on display.

White House staffers expect about 100,000 visitors to take in the decorations, including the guests at about two dozen official holiday parties.

Last year’s theme, “We The People,” featured illustrations of the Bidens’ pets and reminders of family traditions, such as the well-used recipe cards of Jill Biden. (This year’s decorations also featured multiple depictions of the Biden pets, Willow and Commander, including one version of the dog made entirely of licorice.) The Bidens’ first Christmas at the White House, in 2021 – still a covid holiday – was themed “Gifts From the Heart” and featured a gingerbread house that honored the front-line workers helping the country get through the pandemic.

The theme idea began with Jackie Kennedy – she chose the “Nutcracker Suite” in 1961 when she decided to give the tree in the Blue Room center stage. Since then, themes have included Hillary Clinton’s “Twelve Days of Christmas” in 1994, Laura Bush’s 2008 “A Red White and Blue Christmas,” Michelle Obama’s “Joy To All” in 2012, and Melania Trump’s “America the Beautiful” in 2020.

One former first lady is honored with a special display this year. With the recent death of Rosalynn Carter, her ground-floor portrait is draped in black and has two amaryllis arrangements, a candle and a note of condolence in front of it.

Carter’s White House Christmas decorations reflected her own style. The most memorable might be the 1978 Victorian Christmas, where more than 2,500 antique toys from the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y., were shipped to the executive mansion. According to The Washington Post, Amy Carter, then 11, arranged the miniature furniture and dolls in an antique dollhouse under the tree. Rosalynn Carter told reporters that “Amy likes the Barbie-type better than baby dolls.”

In 1979, Tim Gunn, a young instructor at the Corcoran School of Art, helped his students create folk art style ornaments for the Carters’ Blue Room tree. Gunn, now known for hosting “Project Runway,” didn’t realize how big the tree was, and he had to supplement with red apple ornaments from Sears. But there are no official photos of Gunn and his students with Rosalynn Carter; the camera had no film.

Many people who work on the decorations keep a snapshot in their mind’s eye, regardless of whether they have a camera. For Setteducati and Boza, their moment happened a few minutes before the media preview as they heard the live holiday music from the Grand Foyer. “It just brought us to tears,” says Setteducati. “It’s overwhelming.”

Haiyun Jiang for The Washington Post
The White House’s Ground Floor Corridor holds letters with holiday messages from Americans.