Visiting the White House at Christmastime
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We have a long (and always growing) list of trips we want to take. Call it a bucket list if you wish, but it is from this list that we create and build our travel dreams. One travel dream that has been shining toward the top of the list for quite some time is a Christmas visit to the White House: the People’s House. We love the holidays, and politics and partisanship aside, we admire and respect the revered elegance and importance of the White House. Visiting while it is decked in its holiday finest would be a memorable treat.
But — as we have experienced in the past, wanting to visit the White House and getting to visit the White House are two very different things. Before we get to the holiday magic contained inside the People’s House, let’s look at what it takes to get in the door.
How to Visit the White House
To arrange a White House visit, you need to contact the office of your congressional representative. Requests can be submitted up to three months in advance of your anticipated travel dates, which means you may be booking your trip to DC before you know if you will get to visit the White House. However, the sooner you apply the better because the number of tours allowed each day is limited. If you want to take a tour at Christmastime, send in your request in September.
It will improve your chances if you can designated multiple days on your trip that you would be available for a tour. Once the request is submitted by the office of your representative, you will be contacted by White House Tours for security information. Unfortunately for advance planners, the success or failure of your request won’t be known until 10 to 14 days before the hoped-for event. If the White House visit is only a part of a planned DC visit, then the difficulties are less significant. But, if the White House tour is the sole or primary reason for the trip, the late verification can create some last-minute hotel and air bookings, adjustments or cancellations. The tours are typically scheduled for Tuesday through Thursday from 7:30am to 11:30am and on Fridays and Saturdays from 7:30am to 1:30pm. Tours are free, but subject to change due to White House scheduling and events that cannot be foreseen.
Planning Our Holiday White House Visit
The official White House Christmas tree is usually delivered the week before Thanksgiving and decorating for Christmas is in full swing. The seasonal decor is ready for public viewing a few days after Thanksgiving. Our requests for a Christmastime tour was submitted on Sept. 10 for a Dec. 11, 12 or 13 visit. We found out via email on Friday, Nov. 30 that we were approved and accepted for our visit. Deck the halls with boughs of history, we get to see the White House Christmas tree!
We then found a cheap Spirit Airlines flight into Baltimore for $64. Normally, we would have used 5,000 Spirit miles to cover the fare, but the close-in reward booking fees were more than the actual cost of the flight, so that strategy doesn’t work well for last-minute travel. Thankfully, there are plenty of affordable hotels in Baltimore using points or cash. Since we arrived pretty late in the evening, we just booked a decent cash rate at the Aloft BWI Baltimore Airport and rested for the night. The same hotel could be booked for 17,500 Marriott Rewards points.
In Washington, DC, we returned to the Hyatt Place White House that we have visited in the past as it is within easy walking distance to the White House, includes free breakfast and only costs 12,000 World of Hyatt points per night. The nearby Grand Hyatt Washington is also a good choice at 15,000 World of Hyatt points per night, especially if you have access to its club lounge as our daughter, Mommy Points, has scored us on some trips. Either could be booked with a Hyatt Category 1–4 award from the World of Hyatt Credit Card, though we just used 12,000 points earned from that card on this trip.
To avoid spending extra time, money and an additional night in the DC area, we ponied up $200+ each for the United nonstop evening flight home from Washington National directly to our home airport in Houston. It wasn’t a great deal financially, but the right move to maximize time and energy during the busy holiday season.
Visiting the White House at Christmas
As the precious few days passed from our approval to our departure, we held our breath (well, it was more like slow, shallow breathing) that our tour would not be affected by the ghost of Christmas cancellation. Even as we approached the tour entrance, we kept one eye out for unusual Secret Service movement and the other eye scanning our phone looking for breaking news that might bear bad tidings. Fortunately, we were greeted by an open gate and a welcoming gesture and into the line we went.
The Secret Service officer checked our IDs and cross-checked the master list to verify if we were indeed on “the nice list.” Three additional screenings later and we were ready to enter the White House.
The tour enters from the East Wing and you pass through a hallway that leads to the first of many grand Christmas trees. The initial tree is dedicated to the Gold Star Families of our armed forces and is decorated in red and blue ribbon, graced with flowing white stars with rich gold ornaments adding elegance and beauty to the stately fir.
As you turn the corner, you come to the East Colonnade that is lined on both sides with bright red berry trees of varying heights that are naturally lit by the multiple large windows that look out into the Kennedy Garden. The trees had received some unfavorable reviews when first introduced this year, and we were curious as to what our impression and interpretation would be when seeing them in person. But, when standing in front of the trees, we found them to be colorful, festive and appropriate for the season. A muted green carpet provided a seasonal balance to the somewhat narrow walkway. Judging by the number of photos being taken of the trees, they seem to be a hit with the touring crowd. Fortunately, cameras (with some limitations) are permitted on the White House tour.
The next interesting encounter was the display of Official White House Christmas Cards from the presidential occupants of the past 65 years. Twelve administrations are covered here and their choices reflect not only a style and attitude, but also graphically and dramatically illustrate the number of Christmases each experienced as the leader of our country. Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush 43, Clinton and Obama all have eight cards represented. Johnson and Nixon have five, Carter and Bush 41 have four, Ford has three, Kennedy only two and Trump also has two. We found this exhibit to be a poignant, moving and educational presidential history lesson with a direct seasonal correlation.
It is at this point that you physically enter the White House proper and enjoy rooms with names you have probably heard — the China Room, the Vermeil Room and the Library. Of these three, The Library was my personal favorite. The room emitted a warm and comfortable glow, and one could easily imagine a classic Christmas carol playing quietly in the background.
Next, you will leave the ground floor and ascend to the state floor via a significant wooden stairway where the East Room awaits your arrival. The East Room is the largest and most utilized room in the Executive Mansion. It has been the site of press conferences, Medal of Honor presentation ceremonies, entertainment, weddings, funerals and even a senior prom. Large chandeliers, grandiose garland draped mirrors and gold-hued drapes elegantly highlight the room while two 14-foot fir trees flank the traditional Nativity scene that is now in its 51st year of display. The East Room traditionally is quite spacious and open with few furnishings.
After exiting the East Room, the famous Red, Green and Blue rooms lie only seconds away. The Green Room now serves as a parlor for small receptions. Its decorative theme for the holidays illustrates and highlights the great work ethic of American farmers and the fruits of their labor. Harvested produce, grains and nuts are found in the garland on the mantle, the boughs of the tree and as accents on the tables.
The oval-shaped Blue Room is an elegant, handsome and inviting space that most would love to have in their own homes. It occupies the center of the White House, and its windows look out onto the South Lawn and toward the Washington and Jefferson monuments. The Blue Room is often used by the president to receive guests, but during Christmastime, this room proudly plays host to the official White House Christmas tree. When viewing the White House from outside, the 18-foot North Carolina-grown Fraser fir is easily seen through the South Portico.
The Blue Room just feels like what I think of when I envision the best of America, and the tree is decorated to enhance this ambiance. A long continuous blue velvet ribbon curls itself throughout the tree with the names of all the states and territories proudly embroidered with a rich gold thread. Red and gold ornaments fill the green branches that reach toward and touch the ornate ceiling medallion.
As an aside, the Blue Room, due to its shape and position in The White House, might lead an outsider to assume this is where the Oval Office must be located. In reality, the Oval Office is not in the White House proper, but down in the West Wing in an area not visible to the public.
The Red Room’s bright and bold color grabs your total attention as you enter its doorway. The centerpiece tree is adorned with ornaments depicting popular activities of the American youth, ranging from sports to drama to music. The contrast of the white Italian marble fireplace and mantle with the red, green and white garland spray is simply stunning and, in keeping with the spirit of the tree, fun.
A meal is sadly not included in the White House tour, but, if it was, the State Dining Room would be the logical place for it to be served. It can accommodate over a hundred guests, but my blue jeans attire likely would have needed a serious upgrade. Eagles support the furniture and top the trees in homage to one of our national symbols. A large edible gingerbread creation sits under one of the classic White House mirrors and depicts famous monuments and structures on the National Mall. The piece was made with almost 400 ponds of ingredients by the pastry team.
And, if the White House had not already impressed you enough with its Christmas trappings, when you pass the Kennedy portrait into the Entrance and Cross Hall you will surely have visions of sugarplums dancing in your head. For what now confronts you is an indoor forest of Christmas treasure.
Thousands of red ornaments line the hallway and grace the deep green branches to foster an image so rich in Christmas you fully expect Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney to come out from behind the trees singing White Christmas at any second. And, we were ready to join in the chorus. The projected light on the ceiling added sparkle and pizzazz to a room that was already a full holiday palette. The Presidential Seal rising above the multi-layered decor was a popular photo op for all.
This space was about 2,500 square feet of elegance and color, a dazzling fairyland. It was hard to absorb it all in the time allotted, but easy to love every second we were gifted. We were the last two to leave for the day, and we lingered and looked as much as we could. We could have easily spent longer assimilating and reflecting on all we had seen, but all good things must end, and the business of the White House had to go on.
It was such a privilege and thrill to tour “The People’s House” at Christmas. Even though we are very common people, we feel special because of this opportunity. Mission completed, memories secured, job well done. A great Christmas gift indeed.
Other Holiday Sights in Washington, DC
The White House tour was the reason for the trip, but since we were there, we also took full advantage of some other DC Christmas traditions and offerings that we would recommend to others. We visited the trees at the US Capitol, the Supreme Court and Union Station.
The United States Botanic Garden had a beautiful display of scale model monuments made entirely of plant material. The same artistic skill and methods were used to build the famous American train depots that were central to the Garden’s themed “All Aboard” model train exhibit.
We spent part of one evening at the National Christmas Tree that is permanently located on The Ellipse between the White House and Washington Monument. The tree is surrounded by 56 smaller trees that border a winding walkway and represent each state and territory. Trains are also an integral part of the National Tree display with multiple set ups surrounding the tree’s base. Live entertainment is frequently offered, and at dusk, the atmosphere is magical as the red and green lights of the tree glow in the near foreground with either the lights of the White House or the evening sky in the background.
We were blessed with good weather, grand sights and memorable moments. We departed for the trip with a pulsating Christmas spirit and came back with even more. The adventure was worth it. And as an epilogue, our congressman was, coincidentally, on our Thursday evening flight home and our window seat paid dividends as we witnessed two shooting stars as we looked to the north. Or, perhaps it was Santa making some practice runs before the big day. Anything is possible — safe travels, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
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