Aunt Gracia and the White House Christmas Ornaments


Like so many others in the western world, we took down our tree this weekend. While there is much excitement and anticipation as we put it up, there is relief and refreshment as we take it down.

Trees that come into our homes fresh and green, begin to shed needles in abundance, branches hanging heavy like the arms of a tired, old lady. The ornaments no longer look beautiful, but sad and incongruous.

What was once beautiful was now tired and ready to go.

We took off the decorations and carefully wrapped them in crisp, tissue paper, placing them into a colorful Christmas container. Red, gold, and green glass balls were wrapped up as well, showing their colors through the transluscent paper.

The clay angels from our Cairo days, wooden Pakistani camels, small, knit stockings from Christmases gone by — all of that too was taken off shelves and packed up until next year.

And each year as we pack away Christmas I think about my Aunt Gracia and her gifts to us while she was still alive — White House Christmas ornaments.

Yearly the White House Historical Association, whose purpose is to “enhance the understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the White House”offers a Christmas ornament through their museum shop. The association designs the ornament and it is only available through this venue.

For years my Aunt Gracia, my father’s oldest sister, volunteered at the White House. Among other things she would address cards to people for their birthdays or special events (I know you thought that the president himself sent you those special cards but – no, that’s not so. It was my Aunt Gracia.) And often her gifts to her nieces and nephews, of which she had an abundance, were White House Christmas Ornaments.

Delicate and framed in 24 karat gold, the ornaments are beauties.

There is the 1988 ornament – Children of the White House featuring President Jackson’s children. There is 1989 – the Bicentennial of the Presidency. 1994 shows soldiers standing at attention and is called “The Imperial Christmas” while 1995 goes for a patriotic theme with the white house flanked by two American flags. 1996 shows us an eagle on the Presidential Seal and 1997 gives us a larger view of the White House grounds. Others include Dolly Madison with an oval frame surrounding her; Abraham Lincoln in his characteristic “thinking” pose; a 200th anniversary edition in 2000; and a family’s first carriage ride in 2001.

The themes are endless. With their gold filagree and unique designs, these ornaments are works of art, heirlooms to be passed down for generations. 

There are times when it feels strange to me that I am so drawn to these ornaments. As a third culture kid and adult I have divided loyalties between countries, and the White House has never held particular interest to me, despite the decisions made daily in the oval office that affect our world.

But these ornaments? They are special. They are moveable pieces. They tell a story of Aunt Gracia, aunt to many nieces and nephews. Gracia, who lost her father at the awful age of 13, she the oldest in a family of five. Gracia Mae who lived in the nation’s capital for years, who lived alone for many of those years, but died surrounded by family who loved her. The ornaments remind me of my brother and sister-in-law who rearranged their home so that Aunt Gracia could live with them during her last weeks of life. Aunt Gracia, who kept up with all of us, who had an 80th birthday party attended by 75 friends and family where my mom read the poem “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple!” Gracia who chose a perfect gift for her nieces and nephews each year – White House Christmas ornaments.

In more recent years we have occasionally received ornaments from other family members hoping to continue the tradition. 2007 “A President Marries in the White House”; 2008 “A Victorian Christmas Tree”;  2012 where William Taft rides in a green automobile. Each time it was special, a time to reminisce and remember Aunt Gracia, thankful for this beautiful tradition.

So the ornaments have become one of our moveable pieces, a visual reminder of a beloved Aunt, a tangible, moveable piece to pass on.

So we packed up Christmas, and all the square boxes of different colors that hold these ornaments, grateful for our moveable pieces. They will always be visual reminders of a beloved Aunt; tangible evidence of her life and her love.