An Intimate Look at the White House Christmas Party
I was fortunate enough to get a late invite to the White House Christmas party on Wednesday night.
I know some folks don’t like these kind of events, but I remember hearing about the famous White House Christmas Party since I was a kid. And when I Googled it, on getting last year’s invite, I was surprised that I couldn’t find any information on the event itself (what to expect foodwise, what people wear, could I bring a camera, etc.) So for that reason, and because I just find events like this fascinating from an American history perspective, I thought I’d give folks a you-are-there tour, for those who might be interested.
Had I gotten the invite earlier I’d have forced mom to come out for it (I tried to get her to come out last year, the only other time I’d gotten an invite to the Christmas party, but she wasn’t up to flying out, so I invited my sister Kathy instead, and this year was just too last minute, she couldn’t fly out with less than a day’s notice and drop everything at home). Mom is 81 (or so) now, and doesn’t walk as well as she used to, so I’d like to be able to bring her soon (if I get invited again). I don’t think my parents have ever fully understood my career(s), and I suspect meeting the President of the United States, albeit briefly, might earn me some “boy done well” chits with the ‘rents. But since it was last minute, I asked my friend Matt, who has been pining for a “guest of” invite for a while.
The event starts at 6pm, but folks start lining up well before that. This year, the weather was quite nice, upper 40s, so it wasn’t a problem waiting outside for 20 minutes or so. The Secret Service does an amazing job processing 600 people in a short period of time. I was standing in line behind Steve Benen and his wife (Steve used to blog at the Washington Monthly and now blogs for Rachel Maddow), and didn’t even recognize Steve because we’d only met once in person! (He and his wife live in Vermont, damn them.)
You go through security, which includes a metal detector and some other sort of sniffer device, and your name is checked twice (like Santa), on two different lists in two different locations, just to make sure. Then you walk down a dark sidewalk until you turn towards the East Wing on the White House and walk under one of the famous white porticos, to your left and right huge beautiful Christmas wreaths, all lit up with holiday lights.
Here’s a map of the ground floor of the East Wing and White House Residence, so you can see where we walked in, and where the various rooms are – the red line shows our path in.
On entering the East Wing, you’re greeted by one of the first of many gorgeous military guys. (And you thought the Israelis had hot staff.) You walk down a long hall, get your ticket for getting your photo with the President and First Lady (the tickets this year were color coded, different groups going at different times), then take a right then a left, and drop your coat off at the White House cinema (it’s not like the President can actually go and take in a movie at the local cineplex). You continue a few steps further and come to the first of the “historic” rooms in the East Wing. On the right is “the Library,” where I ran into Steve and his wife taking a break on the couch:
Steve and his wife crack me up. They had apparently eaten before coming to the event, out of concern that there might not be food! Oh man, did they miss something. (More on that in a moment.)
Across from the library is the Vermeil Room and the China Room. Across from the China Room are the stairs leading up to the second floor, where the actual gathering takes place. This is a nice map of the floor plan, first the ground floor of the White House “Residence,” the familiar center part of the White House that we traditionally think of as “the White House.”
The Entrance Hall
You go up the stairs to the First Floor of the Residence (here’s the floor plan) – the Obamas live on the second floor – and enter the Entrance Hall, where a Marine band was playing Christmas music.
The Cross Hall
You go from there to the Cross Hall (the famous hall where you see the President walking down on his way to a major press conference).
The tradition of hanging presidential portraits in this hall dates to President Ulysses Grant. The Buchanan administration first began the tradition of keeping paintings of presidents for the White House collection. The Grants added to this collection, and hung portraits of presidents from Washington to Lincoln in the Cross Hall behind a glass screen.
At that time, visitors could come to the White House on weekdays, enter through the north doors, and walk down the Cross Hall past the paintings to the East Room. With a note from a congressman, visitors could view the other “State Floor” rooms, such as the Red Room, where they could see the large Grant family portrait.
In 1881, incoming President Chester Arthur placed a photographic portrait of a beautiful woman in the Cross Hall and instructed staff to keep fresh roses on the table next to it. This caused a bit of a stir until they discovered that the woman was the president’s late wife Nell, who had died nearly two years earlier.
This is the Cross Hall, from the end towards the State Dining Room:
From there we walked down to the State Dining Room, where apparently I didn’t take any photos. there was a ton of food on a buffet, and a ton of dessert on another table. An amazing assortment – here’s my plate, but there was more food than just this, I was watching my intake so as to save room for dessert. (Yes, no photo of the State Dining Room, but a photo of my food – you can see where my priorities lie):
The State Dining Room & the Gingerbread House
Strike that, I do have one picture from the State Dining Room. It’s of the Gingerbread White House they make every year for the party. This year it had the original stones that was the White House before they got painted white (I believe that was after the Brits burned it down and the stone was scorched so they had no choice but to paint it).
Here’s a floor plan of the First Floor of the Residence, which I’m describing now – again, red line shows our initial path:
The Red Room
Next up, on leaving the State Dining Room, is the Red Room.
The Blue Room
After that is the Blue Room, which is an oval, and I always thought was right above the Oval Office. It’s not. The Oval Office is all the way over in the rather ugly West Wing. The Blue Room had a huge, gorgeous, Christmas tree.
On June 2, 1886, Grover Cleveland became the first and only president to exchange wedding vows at the White House, and he and Frances Folsum did so in the Blue Room, accompanied by John Philip Sousa and the Marine Band.
Although decorated trees can be found throughout the White House at Christmastime, the Blue Room is the traditional location for the “primary” Christmas tree. The tree is cut to 18 feet and erected in the center of the room, then wired to a hook in the ceiling to ensure that it remains stable. Then it can be decorated with the year’s theme ornaments and decorations.
The Green Room
From there you go the Green Room.
Thomas Jefferson, the second occupant of the White House, used it as a dining room with a “canvas floor cloth, painted green,” foreshadowing the present color scheme. James Madison made it a sitting room since his Cabinet met in the East Room next door, and the Monroes used it as the “Card Room” with two tables for the whist players among their guests.
The Green Room was the site of one of the nation’s earliest dramatic moments. With the stroke of a pen, President James Madison signed the nation’s first declaration of war in the Green Room. The War of 1812 led to the burning of the White House by British troops in 1814.
In this room, the body of young Willie Lincoln, President Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, lay for the viewing, and his mother Mary Todd Lincoln avoided the room ever afterward.
And here’s Matt sitting where we ate dinner, in the Green Room.
And here’s a beautiful Christmas tree in the Green Room, looking out on the South Lawn of the White House, towards the Washington Monument.
The East Room
From the Green Room, you then enter the East Room, which is where the press conferences are held. Here there was more food (same stuff that was in the State Dining Room).
At times during the Civil War years, Union troops occupied the room. In 1864, the East Room was the scene of a large reception given by President Lincoln in honor of Ulysses S Grant shortly before his appointment as head of all the Union armies. In April of 1865, the East Room was again filled with people, but this time they were mourners surrounding the body of President Lincoln after his assassination.
And here’s a shot from the center of the East Room, with Steven Benen and our friend Kombiz, and significant others. Where I’m taking the photo is pretty much where the President stands when he’s giving his press conference.
While chatting with folks in the Green Room, I ran into Nate Silver, who I hadn’t seen in years – the last time I saw him he was just another blogger (not that he isn’t now, but you know what I mean). Here’s me poking a finger at Nate while his boyfriend snaps a photo of us:
I also got to say hi to Judy Woodruff of PBS’ the NewsHour, who I know, and adore. I got to spend time with Judy a number of years back when she invited me and conservative blogger Mike Krempasky to Harvard’s Kennedy School to give a talk about blogging. To this day, I’ve never had a better interview. Judy was astounding. And I know we’re not supposed to say things like this, lest it come across as sexist, but I’m a gay man, and we appreciate beautiful women – Judy looked stunning.
And here’s a nice shot of Matt and the gorgeous centerpieces on the buffet table in the East Room.
Meeting the President and First Lady
Then Matt and I lined up to get our photo taken with the President and the First Lady. Here’s the path to that:
You get in line in the Entrance Hall, and then make your way down the stairs back to the ground floor of the Residence, walk all the way down towards the Palm Room, then loop back and get in line to finally enter the Map Room:
The Map Room is so-named because it was used by President Franklin Roosevelt as a situation room from which to follow the course of World War II. It now serves as a private meeting room for the president or the first lady. But until 1929, it had historically been used as a billiard room by many presidents, and occasionally for doctors’ visits.
Then, via the Map Room, you enter the Diplomatic Reception Room (the oval room below the Blue Room), where you’re introduced briefly to the President and First Lady, get your photo taken and are escorted out in a matter of seconds. It’s so fast, it’s somewhat surreal. The President and First Lady get their photo taken with 300 invitees (and their guests), and with each person they take 3 photos, just to be safe. So that’s 900 flash bulbs in their face over a period of two hours. And keep in mind, this isn’t the only White House Christmas Party – there are like 12 of them or so. That’s a grand total of 10,800 flash bulbs going off in their faces. I don’t know how they do it.
Then after we got our picture, we were escorted out into the China Room, where I glanced at the display case and immediately saw some china belonging to George Washington. I couldn’t care less about China. But that was cool.
We don’t have the photo yet – that comes in a few days by email (very efficient of them). But here is last year’s with my sister Kathy.
Then back upstairs for some more food, where I ran into Arianna Huffington, who also looked (typically) gorgeous.
Another nice photo of the Christmas tree in the Green Room, looking out onto the South Lawn:
And Then It’s Over
Then we got our coats and left, getting a nice unique view of the White House north side (typically thought of as the “front” of the White House, even though it’s really the back):
It was a neat evening. I wish mom had been there, even though I think she voted for the other guy.