Surrounded by red walls, there’s a tree that soars over 18 feet above those on the ground and mesmerizes the eye with its dance of gold garland, crystal lights, and red and green ornaments. Beside it is the bedazzling sparkle of a floor length gold and silver-beaded gown, the bodice tied with a robin’s egg blue bow. Holiday music jingles and rings in the background, ending “A Season of Merriment and Melody’s” enrapture of the five senses. The exhibit turns the otherwise unseasonal cream marble of the George W. Bush Presidential Library & Museum into a lush holiday display.
The theme “A Season of Merriment and Melody” was chosen in 2004 by Mr. and Mrs. George W. Bush, the residents of the White House at the time. In a tradition dating back to 1961, the President and First Lady chose a theme to implement “the wonder of the season with the magic of holiday songs that brighten hearts and evoke wonderful memories,” according to the face of the exhibit brochure.
“Songs bring people together,” former First Lady Laura Bush said. “Many people have memories of caroling in their neighborhoods and going door to door … that’s what people remember. They remember singing those [songs] with their family and friends and drinking eggnog and eating Christmas cookies.”
In a family who, in their fourth year in the White House, and with four more to come (2004 was the same year Bush won the reelection against Senator John Kerry), emphasized the importance of families and traditions, and this theme did just that.
This trope of familial tradition is what is on display at the Bush Library & Museum this year. The exhibit shows a behind-the-scenes look at Christmas in the White House, from the perspective of 2004, the fourth annual year of this type of exhibit.
Essential to the theme is the potpourri of small scenes, each depicting Christmas carols, chosen with nostalgic significance. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” was Mrs. Bush’s childhood favorite and is included as part of the exhibit.
Mrs. Bush’s opinion may have changed to match her now more sophisticated tastes. “I love the beautiful carols, the religious carols. I think those are the ones that mean the most to me,” Mrs. Bush said.
Also included is the soaring Blue Room tree. With the chandelier removed and the furniture moved out, the 18-and-half-foot tree marks the official tree of the White House. “It is this tree, above all others, that embodies the annual Christmas tree,” said one of the docents, clad in a suit to match the formal tone of the exhibit.
Behind the Blue Room tree is the painting that will grace the face of the Bush family Christmas card. In varying shades of green, Bush painted a prickly pear cactus. The painting, Untitled, was painted this year on the Bush family ranch in Crawford, Texas.
It is the one item that wasn’t pulled from its time capsule from 2004.
“[Mr. Bush] did a big series of cactus from our ranch,” Mrs. Bush said. “We picked [this one] because it was red and green … so this is sort of our Texas Christmas tree.”
The Christmas card from their time in D.C. in 2004 is also on display: The White House 2004, by Cindi Holt. Holt is an artist from Fort Worth, who, even when the Bush family represented America, added a Western sparkle, true to their origins.
The White House 2004 depicts the White House Red Room, which is mostly used to host small dinner parties, but also serves as a parlor and music room. The watercolor remains in the White House collection.
During this year of holiday celebrations, President Bush took opportunity and effort to encourage service and volunteerism, honoring military members around the world.
A menorah, donated by the Boca Raton Synagogue, was lit by Will Menachem, and Chaim and Miriam Felzenberg, the three oldest children of U.S. army chaplain Samuel Felzenberg, who was on active duty in Iraq at the time.
“We are honored to celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah in the White House this evening,” President Bush said on the day of the menorah lighting, Dec. 4, 2004.
President Bush also issued remarks on the Kwanzaa holiday. “Kwanzaa strengthens the ties that bind communities across America and around the world,” Bush said. “And reflects the great promise and diversity of America.”
The symbol of religious diversity and celebration was a recurrent theme, also unveiled in a gift to the First Family. Artist Thomas Kinkade made an oil painting titled Symbols of Freedom, the glowing light “affirming the hope that burns in every heart through out individual freedom of religion,” Kinkade said.
Stockings from Hawaii, ornaments, badges and mugs are also on display – gifts given to the First Family.
All gifts given to the First Family during their residence, sent from the United States and beyond, are received by the White House gift office and then sent to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in D.C. It is at the NARA where they are held until the end of the administration, at which point they are are legally transferred to the former First Family upon their withdrawal from the national spotlight.
Most of the gifts are on display in the permanent collection of the Bush Library. The more seasonal and 2004-originating objects are on display only for this exhibit.
“Our all-new exhibit showers visitors with favorite holiday melodies to put them in the holiday spirit,” said Bobbi Gruner, public affairs and marketing manager of the Bush Library.
Hence the ruby red walls and soaring tree.
The “Seasons of Merriment and Melody” exhibit runs at the George W. Bush Library & Museum through Jan. 8.