The history of the White House Christmas ornament

The 2020 White House Ornament.

In 1981, the White House Historical Association released its first annual White House Christmas ornament, “Angel in Flight,” which depicted a copper weather vane inspired by those atop many historic American buildings, such as Mount Vernon and Independence Hall.

Made out of high quality copper with a patina finish, the original 1981 and 1982 ornaments today are rare collectibles. All of the ornaments in the series (1981-2015), including gold plated copies of the original two, can still be purchased today.

White House Chief Usher Rex Scouten arranged to have the Association’s first ornament hung on the Blue Room Christmas tree in 1981. This initiated the tradition of hanging the Association’s ornament on that official tree each holiday season.

The Association was fortunate with the early promotion of the ornament. The National Park Service asked Willard Scott of NBC television in 1984 to display the ornament during a Today Show segment on the Ellipse covering the annual Pageant of Peace. He agreed and the exposure helped bring national attention to this finely-crafted holiday keepsake.

For many years, word of mouth primarily promoted sales of the ornament and buyers soon found that relatives and friends on their gift list anticipated receiving one each year.

During the holiday season, booster clubs, churches, civic groups, and other organizations purchase the White House Christmas ornaments in bulk to resell as a fundraiser. These sales not only help the Association’s mission to preserve the White House, but also assist charitable causes in communities across the nation.

As part of the White House bicentennial commemoration of the laying of the original White House cornerstone, a 1992 White House Christmas ornament was placed inside a special time capsule alongside other contemporary White House objects. Chief Usher Gary Walters said that the objects selected for the time capsule were designed to capture the 1992-era White House. As shown by its inclusion in this commemoration, the 11-year old ornament program was fast becoming an established White House tradition.

An annual tradition

Now entering its 35th year, the Official White House Christmas Ornament has thus far honored 30 presidents beginning with President George Washington, as well as commemorated four White House milestone anniversaries such as the bicentennial of the founding of the American presidency (1989), the bicentennial of the laying of the White House cornerstone (1992), the bicentennial of the occupancy of the White House by President John Adams and First Lady Abigail Adams (2000), and the centennial of the 1902 White House renovation by President Theodore Roosevelt (2002).

Every ornament is American-made in Lincoln, Rhode Island, by ChemArt manufacturing, the Association’s partner since the ornament’s inception in 1981.

The 2020 ornament

This year’s official 2020 White House Christmas Ornament honors John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president of the United States. The youngest president since Theodore Roosevelt, Kennedy took office in January 1961, at age 43. Before his vibrant presidency was cut short by an assassin’s bullet on Nov. 22, 1963, he had invigorated the American spirit. His legacy lives on in his youthful belief in America and his faith in America’s responsibilities to the world.

With this ornament we remember President Kennedy through his posthumous official White House portrait, made in 1970 by Aaron Shikler, the artist selected by the president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy. The portrait, symbolic of his unfinished presidency, hangs in the White House today. Shikler recalled that Mrs. Kennedy did not want the portrait to look the way other artists had portrayed him. “I painted him with his head bowed, not because I think of him as a martyr,” Shikler said, “but because I wanted to show him as a president who was a thinker... All presidential portraits have eyes that look right at you. I wanted to do something with more meaning. I hoped to show a courage that made him humble.”

The reverse of the ornament features the dates of President Kennedy’s brief term, 1961-1963, on either side of an engraving of the White House. The White House as it is today is another Kennedy legacy. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy restored the furnishings and decor of the State Rooms to the era of the early presidents and invited the public to view them in a television special.”The White House belongs to the American people,” she said.

The White House Historical Association, which Mrs. Kennedy founded in 1961 continues today to fulfill the mission she envisioned: “to enhance understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of the historic White House.” The Association remains a lasting legacy of a presidential term unfinished.