Press dreaming of White House Christmas with every article they write


AMERICA:For journalists used to being herded in and out like cattle, the White House Christmas party is a reversal of fortunes

Christmas came early this year, in the form of an invitation: “The President and Mrs Obama request the pleasure of your company at a Holiday Reception to be held at the White House on Wednesday, December 5, 2012, at six o’clock,” the card said.

Before the holidays are over, the Obamas will have wined and dined some 14,000 people at 24 parties and receptions. For journalists, accustomed to being herded in and out like cattle for press conferences and speeches, the party represented a significant reversal of fortunes.

Jackie Kennedy started the tradition of selecting an official holiday theme in the 1960s, when she chose the Nutcracker theme for her daughter Caroline. This year, Michelle Obama opted for “Joy to All”. The election campaign was a long, hard slog, and there was a sense of release, even joy, about the Christmas media reception. Fifty-four live Christmas trees exuded a heady scent of pine. Everywhere you looked, there were ribbons, candles and baubles.

Looking after military families is one of Mrs Obama’s favourite causes. They were her first guests this season, and two rooms, the east landing and oval-shaped blue room, with its 18½ft fir tree, were dedicated to them.

Bo’s standing

The first dog, Bo, figured prominently. When Mrs Obama previewed the decorations for the press, she said the larger-than-life topiary of the Portuguese water dog given to Malia and Sasha by the late Sen Ted Kennedy, and the Bo-themed ornaments, “basically represent Bo’s standing”.

Having your picture taken with the president and first lady was the first order of the evening. US president Barack Obama rarely attends his own parties. He and the first lady were confined to a small room on the ground floor, where they smiled for photographs with 683 guests.

A columnist who writes snide articles about Obama queued with the rest of us. Military volunteers in dress uniform kept the line moving. I had a few seconds to ask Mrs Obama when they would bring Malia and Sasha to Moneygall. “Oh, this term, for certain!” she said.

While the Obamas performed their hostly duties, the rest of us were given free run of the first two floors of the White House. Like tourists, we photographed each other in front of Christmas trees, presidential portraits and outsize sprays of roses and lilies. It felt as if the children had been let loose in a museum and allowed to sit on the historic furniture.

I couldn’t resist stretching out on the red satin chaise longue beneath Dolley Madison’s portrait.

Long tables down the centre of the east room and state dining room were laden with lamb chops, smoked salmon, shrimp, crab claws, green beans with almonds,

cauliflower, macaroni and cheese. Chefs in white hats served freshly carved ham and turkey with cranberry sauce and mustard.

Eddie Gehman Kohan, executive editor of ObamaFoodorama, told me how she founded her website on election night 2008 and became a global internet sensation, chronicling daily White House dining and food initiatives such as Mrs Obama’s “Let’s Move”.

The first lady used Gehman Kohan’s website and photos to document her May 2012 best-seller, American Grown: the Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.

Impressive desserts

Four of the recipes from American Grown featured in the savoury buffet on Wednesday night, but Gehman Kohan was most impressed by the desserts, overseen by the chief pastry chef, Bill Yosses. The president’s favourite dessert, apple pie, featured, along with cherry and huckleberry pie, a mousse extravaganza called “chocolate yule log” and British-style sticky toffee pudding. The recipes are available on the ObamaFoodorama website.

The White House gingerbread house, weighing almost 300 pounds and set on a marble table in the state dining room, was a major attraction. In previous years, the gingerbread house was frosted in white chocolate. This one was made of wheat, rye and gingerbread, to imitate the grey-brown colour of the original house, before it was first painted white in 1798.

The following night, at the 90th annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, Obama noted that “our tree has been having a hard time recently”.

The old tree was felled in a storm. “Then its replacement didn’t take hold. It just goes to show, nobody’s job is safe here in Washington.”

The crowd laughed.

“But I feel good about this one,” Obama continued. “It was planted just days before Hurricane Sandy, and it made it through the storm in one piece.”