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The Images of Christmas Past

Nobody decorates for Christmas like the first family. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t get the chance to see the White House’s decked-out halls around the holidays.

But there was one artist who dutifully documented the house’s festive adornments year after year. From the administration of Lyndon Baines Johnson administration through that of Bill Clinton, Lily Spandorf made an annual tradition of drawing and painting the White House’s Christmas decorations.

Now, the Woman’s National Democratic Club is hosting an exhibition of Spandorf’s work. Organized by the White House Historical Association, the exhibit features 16 of Spandorf’s White House Christmas depictions, as well as newspaper articles related to her work and programs from White House Christmas events. 

The exhibit is housed in the 116-year-old Whittemore House, which has been home to the WNDC for 83 of its 88 years in existence. The WNDC continually hosts two art exhibits at a time in the house, but this is the first time an exhibit has focused on Christmas. The Spandorf works on display span from the administration of President Richard Nixon through the Clinton administration. 

Spandorf’s artwork consists of pen-and-ink line drawings and gouache paintings that depict the decorations in whimsical detail. Most of the pieces on display focus on the Blue Room Christmas tree and the annual gingerbread house created by the White House chef.

The Blue Room tree is the center of the Christmas decorating theme throughout the White House, said Hillary Mannion, rights and reproductions coordinator for the White House Historical Association. The tradition of choosing a theme started during the John F. Kennedy administration, when Jacqueline Kennedy decided on a nutcracker theme. 

Other themes depicted in the exhibit, including a nutcracker comeback for one year during George H.W. Bush’s presidency, highlight “nature’s bounty,” “gift givers,” the 12 days of Christmas and several others. 

The gingerbread house tradition was started during the Nixon administration. Past gingerbread houses have been traditional in style, but in recent years they have been smaller versions of the White House itself. In 1979, Spandorf drew a pen-and-ink portrait of the White House chef next to his creation. In other years, she simply drew or painted the house. One such piece on display is from Bill Clinton’s presidency and is unique because that year’s gingerbread structure depicted his childhood home. 

Mannion said the gingerbread houses seem to get bigger and more elaborate each year. 

Since Spandorf’s death in 2000, the tradition of documenting the White House decorations through drawing or painting has not been carried on. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have favored digital photography that could be quickly added to their websites.

“There’s always a curiosity of what the White House looks like during the holiday season,” Mannion said.

WNDC President Nuchhi Currier said that even though this is the first time the organization has hosted a Christmas art exhibit, they hope to make it an annual event.

“We have to get creative because we can’t show the same one,” Currier said. “So next time we’ll have to work with the historical association to come up with something different and something new, but obviously related to the White House.”

“Impressions of a White House Christmas” will be on display at the Whittemore House (1526 New Hampshire Ave. NW) until Jan. 12. Visitors can make an appointment to see the exhibit by calling 202-232-7363.

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