There is a sense, among people of a certain flavor of refined taste, that there is something inherently tasteless about Christmas. The usual celebration of American Christmases is perhaps more tasteless than necessary—“Jingle Bell Rock?” flying reindeer? Santa hats paired with otherwise normal clothing?—but Christmas itself has a way of feeling at times a little too bright, too loud, and too rich. But then again, perhaps this is only right and just: it is, after all a celebration of how the human world was broken into by Someone whose presence, had he come in glory, would have been overwhelming. And the fact that he came in a quiet way (albeit one with its own tastelessness, into a stable filled with the sight and smell of animals) has never prevented us from celebrating his coming in the brightest and loudest way possible.
That custom of over-abundant celebration still extends to the secular world today, even to the near-oldest and arguably most degenerate of secular professions: the political. For many years now, it has been customary in the White House to host a Christmas party for members of the press. Over the years it has acquired its own mix of splendor and absurdity: enormous gingerbread houses, cookies shaped in the form of White House pets, and pre-party previews during which the press can snap pictures of the décor (on the presumption, perhaps, that they will be too busy sipping beverages during the event itself to come camera in hand).
This year, which will see the first Christmas under a Trump White House, the tradition of extravagant celebration continues. The décor for the annual press Christmas party (really a pre-Advent bash, as it took place Friday, Dec. 1) deliberately drew on a classic red, green, and gold color-scheme, deployed in an unexceptional way: halls decked with snow-white branches and snow-tipped Christmas trees; greenery in the form of magnolia, amaryllis, and pine; cranberry trees; bowls of peppermint candy; an 18-foot Balsam fir set in the customary Blue Room. The trees in the Grand Foyer were Nutcracker-themed, recalling Jacqueline Kennedy’s decision to decorate the main tree along that vein 56 years ago. (That Kennedy tree was the first of many to embrace a theme; over the years, decorations of natural materials have been popular, as well as ones made by various disadvantaged groups.)
This year, the usual evening party—one of more than a hundred December receptions that will be hosted at the White House—was moved up to 2 p.m. There was eggnog, spiked and plain; the food included lamb chops, mac ’n’ cheese, and latkes.
Good cheer aside, there is always some tension to a White House event. The multiple checkpoints necessitated by security are a given. And it is rare for a president to be on entirely friendly terms with the press; Trump is the exemplar of this tendency rather than the exception to it. But Trump’s brief remarks to the guests, delivered around 3 p.m., were largely cordial. He wished them Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah and acknowledged their stamina in traveling the world to provide coverage of his own official trips, hoping that they would be able to enjoy the time off that afternoon.
The breaking news of the indictment of Michael Flynn, a Trump ex-advisor, was on many minds; but Trump did not stay to address the topic, choosing to leave early after shaking a few hands in lieu of the usual lengthy photo line. One attendee noted that, while each family attending received a ticket to take a photo with the first family, the window of opportunity for that was only two hours—and anyway, “We went for the food.”
Like the president, the attendees seemed for the most part to be able to forget the political feuds which made for their bread and butter. Although CNN chose not to attend, NBC, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox, Breitbart, and Newsmax were all represented, and mingled with members of the administration, including White House chief of staff John Kelly, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, and advisor Kellyanne Conway.
The party was not all movers and shakers, however. As well as spouses and significant others, there were a few children, including one toddler and a week-old baby. The aforementioned attendee described the atmosphere as “festive and laid back. It was basically an office party, just for a really, really big office.” She estimated the attendance at about a thousand, with most of the attendees being in their 30s or 40s. “Conversations were family-centered and convivial. … we swapped stories about our kids.”
It was a timely reminder of how even in the world at large the mere idea of Christmas still can bring out courtesy—or at any rate the tolerance engendered by opportunities to consume large amounts of eggnog—amongst the most disparate people. Perhaps it even qualified as an instance of the triumph of good cheer over more quotidian concerns for protocol, propriety, and, yes, good taste.
Below, Photos 1-16: President Trump’s staff debuts the White House Christmas decorations to the media in 2017 (Credit: Toby Capion/EWTN). Photos 17-22: Archival images show White House Christmas decorations from the last 10 administrations (Credit: National Archives and White House).