See how first ladies have transformed the White House for Christmas

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CNN
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Barbara Bush outfitted the White House Christmas Tree with hundreds of white lilies and iridescent garlands. Michelle Obama added tributes to the First Dog, Bo, in her festive decor. Melania Trump bucked convention with bare white branches and those infamous dark red trees.

Since holiday-obsessed Mamie Eisenhower ramped up presidential Christmas decorations in the 1950s, first ladies have become the keepers of increasingly elaborate holiday decor traditions, and their sensibilities applauded or scrutinized. With new conventions added by different administrations — themes were first introduced by Jacqueline Kennedy, elaborate gingerbread White Houses by Patricia Nixon, and Red Room cranberry trees by Betty Ford — planning has become an intricate, months-long process between the first lady and a team of designers, and requires hundreds of volunteers to execute.

For this season, first lady Dr. Jill Biden revealed whimsical interiors on Monday on the theme “Magic, Wonder, and Joy,” with the hope that Americans “will embrace your inner child and delight in simply being present with those you love,” as she wrote in the annual White House Holiday Guide.

<strong>2023: </strong>Santa and his reindeer take flight in the White House, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the book

Reindeer arc high in the air in Grand Foyer, while in the East Wing Lobby and East Colonnade, oversized candies and fairy lights hang from the ceilings. In all, there are 98 Christmas trees spread throughout the White House — including the official 18.5-foot tree in the Blue Room — along with nearly 34,000 ornaments, and over 142,000 holiday lights on the premises, according to the White House. And, after last year’s historic debut, the White House’s Hanukkah menorah will also be on display — the first to be commissioned by the executive residence and enter its permanent collection, rather than be temporarily loaned.

“We typically do see Christmas decor and holiday decor at the White House becoming grander over time,” said Sarah Fling, a historian with the White House Historical Association, in a video call. “It’s expected now that first ladies have something that’s different, that’s fun, that’s engaging, that’s beautiful to look at.”

Christmas trees have made an annual appearance at the White House for 134 years, with the very first one decked out in candles and toys (before the arrival of electricity to the building). But, as Fling explained, first ladies have always taken charge of decorations, and their role has expanded as Christmas has become more commercialized.

Former first lady Kennedy’s inaugural “Nutcracker Suite” theme became so popular it has since been revived by other administrations, including by Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton. Others have been more patriotic (Trump’s “America the Beautiful,” her final — and less controversial — spin on Christmas), or playful (Laura Bush’s “All Creatures Great and Small,” which included papier-mâché and marzipan Presidential pets). During periods of economic uncertainty, some first ladies have pulled back on extravagance, with Ford opting for homemade designs in 1974, and Obama sending out hundreds of recycled ornaments for local communities to decorate in 2009.

<strong>1962: </strong>First lady Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of themed Christmases.
U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917 - 1963) (C) and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (1929 - 1994) pose with their family on Christmas Day at the White House, Washington, D.C., December 25, 1962. (L-R): Caroline Kennedy, unidentified, John F. Kennedy Jr. (1960 - 1999), Anthony Radziwill (1959 - 1999), Prince Stanislaus Radziwill, Lee Radziwill, and their daughter, Ann Christine Radziwill. (Photo by John F. Kennedy Library/Courtesy of Getty Images)

The decor can also point to larger projects that first ladies are working on, Fling explained.

“A lot of first ladies will shape the decorations around their initiatives,” she said. “So in that capacity, it’s really a means for them to share the causes that are important to them.” Nancy Reagan invited teens from a substance rehabilitation program to create ornaments in the “Just Say No” era, for example, while Obama asked military families to contribute cards and ornaments after launching her “Joining Forces” initiative to support service members.

But as the Internet has given greater access to the White House’s holiday themed interiors, opinions and misinformation can multiply. Trump’s much-talked about “blood trees” in 2018 were called “creepy” (her no-show at the press tour also raised eyebrows), while false claims quickly circulated in 2013 that Obama was erecting “holiday” trees in an effort to ban the word “Christmas” — a sign of Starbucks cup controversies to come.

This year, the White House expects that around 100,000 visitors will come tour the “Magic, Wonder, and Joy” decorations in person. Below, see photographs of how first ladies have transformed the White House over the decades.

<strong>1960:</strong> The Eisenhower family on Christmas Eve. Mamie Eisenhower (second from right) was the first first lady to expand holiday decorations at the White House.
<strong>1970</strong>: Patricia Nixon in front of the White House Christmas tree.
Betty Ford poses in front of the White House Christmas tree in Washington on Dec. 10, 1974. (AP Photo)
<strong>1983</strong>: Nancy Reagan posed with the actor Mr. T, dressed as Santa Claus, unveiling the White House Christmas decorations together.
<strong>1987</strong>: Reagan (pictured with White House chef Hans Raffert) debuted the year's gingerbread house, which included a miniature version of her dog, Rex.
<strong>1992</strong>: Barbara Bush in a cherrypicker, placing a star on a tree in the White House grounds.
<strong>1993: </strong>Socks the Cat, the Clintons' first pet, with his Christmas stocking.
<strong>1994:</strong> Hillary Clinton chose the theme
<strong>1998: </strong>Clinton's shimmering gilt decorations for the year centered on the theme
<strong>2001: </strong>Laura Bush presented the theme
<strong>2009: </strong>President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in front of the White House Christmas Tree, decorated for the theme
The White House Christmas Tree is seen during a press preview, Wednesday Nov. 30, 2011, in the Blue Room of the White House in Washington. The tree, whose theme is
<strong>2010: </strong>The theme
<strong>2010: </strong>The Grand Foyer decorated according to Obama's theme
<strong>2017:</strong> Melania Trump in the Grand Foyer during a preview of the holiday decorations, which featured a ballet performance.
<strong>2017:</strong> Trump's shadowy white branches were an unconventional, minimalist approach to Christmas decor.
<strong>2018</strong>: Melania Trump's cranberry topiary trees, pictured here in the East Colonnade, were scrutinized online.
<strong>2021: </strong>Dr. Jill Biden received the 18-foot-tall White House Christmas Tree, grown in North Carolina.
<strong>2023: </strong>Candy-themed decorations are part of Dr. Jill Biden's theme
<strong>2023: </strong>Though there are 98 Christmas Trees on the White House premises this year, the official tree has a longstanding tradition of being placed in the Blue Room.

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