The White House is arguably this country's most historic home, and each holiday season it falls to the First Lady to put a festive face on not just the family that lives there but the nation that the First Family represents.
Coleen Christian Burke fell in love with that notion, and she left her career in television to follow her passion for decorating. In December 2008, Burke was invited by First Lady Laura Bush to be part of the White House decorating team, and while at first overwhelmed by the grandeur and historical significance of the task, she became more and more intrigued by the families that inhabited those hallowed halls.
Burke went from decorator to historian, and in her book "Christmas With the First Ladies," she captures the White House decorating tradition from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama, inviting the reader into a time of year when each First Family was a family first.
For more on Burke and "Christmas With the First Ladies," visit www.coleenchristianburke.com.
Christmas at Camelot: The Kennedys
"Caroline, John-John, and a friend who we couldn't identify are actually re-creating the Nativity, which is really sweet," said Burke, who admitted to being struck by the intimacy of the photo. "What I love about this picture is off to the side there's just a glimpse of Jackie leaning in and watching while smoking a cigarette, and in the background their family tree is prominent in the picture, and it's a disaster. I felt that if Jackie Kennedy's tree could be that kind of a mess, then anybody could decorate at Christmas. It just really struck me as human, and warm and really kind of special."
From Mourning to Mistletoe: The Johnson Administration
"I love this picture for a couple of reasons," Burke said. "One, there's that God-awful wood paneling that was so popular in the 1960s. And I love that it looks like she has either a Scotch or some type of cocktail there, helping her through her last-minute preparations. I just thought that it was a great way to celebrate Christmas Eve, and you really see her amongst all of her Christmas packages and that the First Family is just like the rest of us. They get behind and they're still wrapping on Christmas Eve."
Pat and Richard Nixon: A (Brief) Golden Era
"This picture is actually the private residence, and again, what's surprising is how low-key it is," Burke said. "The family is kind of gathered loosely around the tree with their pets, and what struck me is that you really can't fake affection with animals or with babies, and here you see that both Mrs. Nixon and President Nixon are really in tune with their animals. I think that says something about them both as human beings. Another glimpse at a private Christmas, and you almost forget that this is a family living in probably the most historic home in the United States."
Betty Ford's Homemade White House Christmas
"What I didn't know is that Betty Ford really encouraged Americans to make their own ornaments, and in fact encouraged people to write to the White House, care of Betty Ford, and she would send them instructions on how to actually craft their own ornaments," Burke said. "What this picture depicts is the end result. If you got Mrs. Ford's instructions on how to make ornaments, then this is how they would turn out."
Betty Ford's Ode to Big Bird
"A big deal at the White house every year is to have a big Christmas party just for kids, and Mrs. Ford loved to have Big Bird at her Christmas parties for kids," Burke recounted. "(Mrs. Ford) loved it so much that she even wrote a poem for Big Bird, and she came up with this Ode to Big Bird, which I thought was very funny. I think she liked to mix it up and have a lot of fun with the Christmas celebration and this picture really shows that." The full poem is available in "Christmas With the First Ladies."
Hats on for the Carters
"This is my favorite Carter photo," Burke said, pointing out that the picture is more than a gathering of family -- it's an appeal to the nation as well. "There was an energy crisis, and this is just a goofy picture of the entire family wearing hats inside, and that was their official Christmas picture that year. I think they really did that, I think that the President said, 'Turn down the thermostat, and let's conserve energy.' I think that the Carters lived by that rule and the picture is just a snapshot in time of what the country was experiencing."
The Carter Family Christmas
"What struck me is that it's very modest. It's not over-the-top ornate, and President Carter doesn't look like the most powerful man in the world," Burke pointed out. "It looks like it could be any family's home on Christmas morning. The kids are ripping presents open, and the tree is decorated but it's nothing that would be in a showroom window, or in the White House, and President Carter is just happy and watching the craziness take place in front of him."
Tinseltown Meets the White House
"Nancy Reagan had a fun time with Christmas, and she definitely brought a little Tinseltown to the White House," Burke said, pointing out that Mrs. Reagan's Christmas celebrations were a far cry from those of the previous administrations. "She had several celebrity Santas every year, and Mr. T was, by far, the most famous. He came in his classic gold chains that he was known for wearing and he 'pitied all the fools,' and he gave away Mr. T dolls. This picture is just really a great moment of pop culture meeting a White House Christmas."
'Tis the Season for Sneezing
"In my research I found President Reagan, and also President Clinton, were extremely allergic to fresh decorations, which is a problem when you have multiple trees and a hundred thousand people coming over to see what they look like," Burke said. "What they did for President Reagan was the ones that gave him the most trouble were moved far away from the private residence, and President Clinton would just suffer through for the Holiday season."
The First Bush White House
Barbara Bush loved to decorate with trees, according to Burke. "One year I think that she actually had 49, and she loved this snowy effect with white lights. It was quite striking." With all those trees, someone had to be the one that put the star atop the official Christmas fir, and Mrs. Bush was both an enthusiastic and reluctant participant. "She took that ride first when George was Vice President; she was the one that would go up and put the star on the tree, and she never really liked it because apparently it's a very bumpy ride," Burke said. "She did it every year and always took different people up with her, and even though she wasn't crazy about riding the cherry picker, she did it and she used it to bring attention to causes."
The Clinton Years
One of Hillary Clinton's favorite ornaments is a photo of her and President Clinton on the day they brought their daughter home from the hospital. "What surprised me about Mrs. Clinton was that I just assumed that she wasn't that interested in decorating the White House," Burke said. "I assumed Mrs. Clinton was focused on policy and health care and proving herself as an independent thinker and not really involved with the homemaking aspect of the White House. It was completely the opposite. She really, like Mrs. Nixon, worked very hard at changing the decorations every year and making them new and interesting and beautiful."
Red, White and Blue Christmas With Laura Bush
Laura Bush's Christmas decorations hold a special place in Burke's heart, as the author admitted to working with a fervor to be a part of this First Lady's decorating team. "I probably tried for about three or four years to get invited," Burke said, laughing. "I think I worked harder on that than I did on my college degree." The hard work paid off, and Burke now knows that she was part of something special, even by White House standards. "This is one of my favorite pictures, because it struck me as almost regal in the way that it comes across," Burke said of this photo of a U.S. Marine playing piano in the Grand Foyer.
Holidays With the Obamas
Burke admits to being somewhat in awe of the current First Lady, Michelle Obama, whom the author says "is known throughout the world for her style." From cranberry garlands in the Red Room, to white chocolate-covered gingerbread replicas of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Mrs. Obama has even been known to incorporate the First Pup into the all-encompassing Christmas display. "They made a Christmas decoration of First Dog, Bo, out of 40,000 pipe cleaners, and it's just a very funny, lighthearted decoration that I think every child that walked through there loved," Burke said. "It's another of my favorite photos, because it's just very clever and something that you may not expect or anticipate from a First Family."