The White House Historical Association’s Long Legacy of Christmas Ornaments

For more than three decades, the association has created an ornament honoring a specific president each year. Learn more about how the tradition started and the group’s thought process for building the ornaments.

Fittingly for the White House Historical Association, it was a first lady who came upon a defining idea for the group’s holiday celebrations. A first lady was responsible for the creation of WHHA, too.

In 1981, roughly two decades after Jacqueline Kennedy founded the group to help furnish one of the defining pieces of American architecture, Nancy Reagan came up with an inventive way to raise funds for the group: WHHA began selling ornaments that year—starting off with an angel.

In the years since, the association, which has done much preservation of the presidential residence’s legacy, has put a lot of history into those ornaments, one president at a time. As CBS News reports, WHHA has slowly grown more ambitious with its ornament designs, each year highlighting a different president—along with, quite often, a reflection of when the president grew up or holiday stories related to that president.

Case in point: The first White House Christmas tree that was lit using electric lights came about during the Calvin Coolidge administration, and as a result, the ornament representing the Coolidge era, released in 2015, lights up.

But don’t expect the ornaments to get political: WHHA President Stewart McLaurin tells CBS News that the group’s ornament strategy specifically focuses on the White House, not the president himself.

“Well, you know, we don’t focus on the policies or the politics or even the popularity of a president,” McLaurin told the news outlet. “It’s about the period of time in the White House that that president served.”

That approach, often gives more obscure presidents a little more notice. “Sometimes the most beautiful and interesting ornaments relate to some of our least-known and, in some people’s view, least-distinguished presidents,” the network’s Rita Braver noted in her report.

So what’s WHHA doing for its ornament this year? Currently it’s on perhaps one of the best-regarded presidents of the 20th century, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The design of the FDR ornament features an eagle insignia and a brass-plated rendition of the White House. But it also reflects numerous elements that made the president who he was. From the association’s website:

The ornament was designed using elements unique to the life and legacy of President Roosevelt. The eagle cartouche emblazoned on the speaker’s stand at President Roosevelt’s first inauguration is the inspiration for the main element of the 2017 ornament. The two flags below have forty-eight stars each, representing the number of states in the union during Roosevelt’s four terms. The shape of the ornament is reminiscent of the silhouette of a tabletop radio—similar to those many Americans had in their homes and used to listen to the president’s reassuring Fireside Chats. Roosevelt’s beloved Fala is pictured on the back of the ornament, sitting next to a festive Christmas tree and presents. A white leaf motif accenting the ornament edges is based on exterior stone molding that adorning the White House north entrance. Four stars toward the top of the ornament represent Roosevelt’s historic four terms as president and the chevron border recalls the design of a card case he carried while serving in office.

That’s a whole lot of history in one tiny little ornament—and it’s not the first time the WHHA has created ornaments with that much detail baked in.

Check out the full array of presidential ornaments on the association’s website.

This year's ornament, honoring Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Handout photo)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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