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I'm Dreaming of a White House Christmas

The decorations are restrained, but they reveal plenty of holiday spirit


WASHINGTON — If you've always longed to see the White House decorated for Christmas, then by all means, go.

But empty your mind of visions of sugarplums.

It's not that the White House isn't pretty during the holidays. It is.

It's not that you won't feel Christmasy. You will.

It's just that you might expect more than you'll get, considering that you (or someone who loves you) will have waited an hour or more in the chilly predawn darkness for your free ticket.

And you might expect more, considering that even though you'll get the ticket early, you won't be able to use it until sometime between 10 a.m. and noon.

And, even then, after all that waiting around, the entire White House tour will only take about 30 minutes, even if you dawdle.

We're talking a handful of pretty rooms with about a dozen gaily decorated Christmas trees. That's it. And you don't even get to take pictures.

You might admire this kind of decorating restraint and class if it were your neighbor's house, but somehow people seem to want more, expect more, from the first family.

Last year, the Green Room and the Red Room barely qualified as decorated because the only holiday items were foot-tall displays on the mantelpieces. Cute displays, to be sure--one of nighttime in Santa's village and another of Santa's workshop on Dec. 23--but nothing that would give Martha Stewart sweaty palms.

Now, before you get testy, understand that there's a good reason for this functionality. The White House is not a showcase. It's a place of government business, and its few public rooms are in near constant use to entertain visiting heads of state, celebrities and honored Americans. That doesn't leave much room for elaborate decorations, especially anything that couldn't be moved to make room for, say, a dinner for 100 people.

Despite these logistical restrictions, the White House is open to the public five days a week, making it the only residence of a head of state that is open to visitors so often. About 1 million people a year go through.

During the holidays, the biggest attractions are the East Room, the Blue Room and the State Dining Room. The East Room is the largest in the White House and is used for receptions, ceremonies, press conferences and other events, but during the holidays it's dominated by six oversize Christmas trees. The trees, decorated in gold glitter balls and burgundy ribbons, flank an 18th century Italian creche.

The oval Blue Room is dominated by the official White House Christmas tree, which takes up much of the room. Last year, the 18-foot-tall tree was decorated with ornaments contributed by special groups and people who were invited to donate them.

The green velvet handmade tree skirt was designed by individuals from each of the 50 states, territories and the District of Columbia, and the Clintons have had it since their first Christmas in the White House. It has a sweet, homespun look that probably would look out of place in any other home of a head of state.

A maroon-and-green checked tablecloth covered the table in the state Dining Room, topped by 3-foot-tall candles, child-tall angels created from dried grapevines and mauve Christmas balls last year. On a side table was the annual gingerbread house created by White House pastry chefs. It was Santa's Victorian house and workshop. Santa was on a cell phone.

One way to liven up your visit is to spend awhile in the White House Visitors Center, a few blocks from the big house. You must go there for tickets anyway, so take some time to watch the 30-minute video and see the displays. Visitors learn lots of interesting history about the White House and get some behind-the-scenes looks at the most famous house in America.

So, while the White House for the holidays is probably not worth a special trip alone, if you have plans to be in town after Thanksgiving, stop by--the decorations usually are put up over the long weekend following Turkey Day.


GUIDEBOOK: President's Digs

White House tours: They have the welcome mat out from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday to Saturday. A limited number of tickets are issued on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 7:30 a.m. at the White House Visitors Center, which accounts for the early morning lines outside. Also, be prepared for airport-like security before you're allowed into the White House. Because special events might make it necessary to cancel public visits, call ahead: telephone (202) 208-1631.

For more information: Washington, D.C., Convention and Visitors Assn., 1212 New York Ave. N.W., Suite 600, Washington, DC 20005-3992; tel. (202) 789-7000, fax (202) 789-7037, Internet

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