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Behind the Holiday Scenes at the White House

Today the Friends of the Gardens-Selby Associates welcomed White House decorator and author, Coleen Christian Burke to speak at a holiday luncheon supporting Selby Gardens.  

Sponsored by: Twisted Twig and The Westin Sarasota

The Bucks County, Pennsylvania resident spoke to a group of nearly 100 people following lunch at Michael’s on the Bay at Selby Gardens, sharing how a letter-writing campaign to become part of the team responsible for decorating the most famous house in America came to be.

“If you had told me when I was a little girl that I would be wielding a glue gun at the White House, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Burke said.

Burke received a call in 2008 from longtime White House florist Nancy Clarke, who informed her that she had been accepted into the group of 80 – 100 volunteers who make up the design team. Burke was to arrive in Washington, DC the Tuesday before Thanksgiving (following heavy security clearance) and work for over five days to prepare the White House for the holiday season.

The experience of working on First Lady Laura Bush’s vision of a red, white and blue patriotic Christmas charmed Burke. She remained on the team for several years to come, eventually serving as a staff decorator for First Lady Michelle Obama.

During those years Burke delved into the Christmas albums of First Families past and wound up writing “Christmas with the First Ladies,” which details the decorating traditions from Jacqueline Kennedy to Mrs. Obama.

Throughout Burke’s talk she shared stories of both the decor efforts (red laser pointers used for direction were quickly confiscated by Secret Service), and styles of each First Lady. Some highlights included:

  • Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy was the first First Lady to develop a decorating theme with her celebration of “The Nutcracker,” which expressed the childlike wonder that surrounds the holidays.
  • Johnson. Ladybird Johnson initiated the tradition of a gingerbread house. Every year this concoction gets bigger and today can weigh more than 500 pounds.
  • Nixon. Pat Nixon was the first First Lady to work with a retailer, which was Saks Fifth Avenue.  She also came up with the candlelight tour and made sure it was handicapped accessible.
  • Ford. Mrs. Ford created a pamphlet with instructions on how to construct felt ornaments like those shown in the White House, which were mailed upon request.
  • Carter. Mindful during down economic times and in the midst of Iranian hostage crisis, Rosalynn Carter preferred a pared-down, modest display. Only candy canes and punch was served at her holiday celebration.
  • Reagan. Nancy Reagan enjoyed Hollywood glitz and glamour and brought in celebrity Santas like Mr. T and Willard Scott, but she also was very down-to-earth and enlisted recovering drug addicts to set up the holiday display as part of her commitment to her “Just Say No” campaign.
  • Bush. Barbara Bush was a fan of needlepoint and one year, every ornament in the White House was hand stitched. She herself created an ornament featuring the family dog.
  • Clinton. Hillary Clinton’s prized tree skirt featured a quilted panel for each state in the union. The trees also included personal ornaments, including one featuring a photo of her and President Clinton bringing their baby, Chelsea, home from the hospital.
  • Bush. Laura Bush preferred solid color topiaries. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 when the White House was closed to tours, the holiday decor was shared online through videos made from cameras attached to the collars of the First Family’s dogs.
  • Obama. Michelle Obama preferred paper decorations and the largest tree in the Blue Room often contained images of military service men and women and their children.

“The one common theme among all the different styles is that every First Lady put their heart into the magic of the White House decorating,” Burke said.

For more information about Coleen Christian Burke’s book and her collection of White House inspired goods, visit or .

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