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Congress takes holiday decorating seriously. This year it caused an outcry

Immigration-themed display ‘not in keeping with the spirit of the season,’ Democrats say 

Border wall-themed holiday decorations hang outside the office of Rep. Eli Crane in the Longworth House Office Building this week.
Border wall-themed holiday decorations hang outside the office of Rep. Eli Crane in the Longworth House Office Building this week. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Since its inception in 2019, the holiday decorating contest in the Longworth House Office Building has been plagued by “skullduggery” and “holiday espionage,” to borrow phrases from two of its founders.

From stolen nutcrackers to deflated snowmen, members of Congress have been known to get competitive. But rarely has the annual December tradition descended into actual controversy.

This year, however, several Democratic lawmakers and staffers are calling out the overtly political decorations of Rep. Eli Crane, an Arizona Republican who hung signs on his doors that say “Have Documents Ready” and “Border Patrol Elves Only.”

“The competition is really supposed to reflect the spirit of the season, be upbeat and fun, let people share their holiday traditions and different faith traditions,” said North Carolina Democratic Rep. Deborah K. Ross, who has participated since she came to office in 2021. “So this is not in keeping with the spirit of the season.”

Crane has fired back, brushing off the criticism. “I wish Democrats were as triggered about all the families whose lives have been destroyed by the consequences of an open-border as they are about Christmas decorations,” he said in an emailed statement.

His display features smiling, sparkly elves perched on a brick wall, under other signs that read “Port of Entry” and “Welcome to Arizona.”

A sign on a door to Crane’s office reads “Border Patrol Elves Only.” Some Democrats have denounced the decorations and said Crane is dragging partisan politics into what is typically a friendly competition. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Colorado Democratic Rep. Brittany Pettersen called the border theme “unfortunate,” but said the competition is still “overwhelmingly” friendly. 

“Like a lot of things in Congress, the large majority of us are going to be normal, reasonable people,” she said.

Petterson came to the House this year after the retirement of Ed Perlmutter, who helped start the decorating wars along with fellow Colorado Democratic Rep. Jason Crow and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher.  

At the center is the second floor of the Longworth Building, where inflatables loom outside many doors when December rolls around. The contest is informal and has no official rules or system of judging, according to Gallagher, who has taken on a de facto leadership role, with Perlmutter retired and Crow’s office now located on the third floor. But even in highly partisan times, members have largely avoided using their decorations to send political messages, at least as Gallagher recalls.

Candy canes line the hallway in front of Rep. Deborah K. Ross’s office on the second floor of the Longworth Building. Ross said the competition is supposed to be “upbeat and fun.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

And Crane isn’t the only member to take aim across the aisle. Outside the office of Georgia Republican Rep. Mike Collins is a bag of coal addressed to Hamas, a naughty list featuring prominent Democrats like Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and a cutout of Hunter Biden with a caption that says “Let it Snow.”

“This is the first year they’ve been political, I think,” Gallagher said. “It’s a fine line, right? Like, I think the Collins stuff is funny… If Democrats want to do some Trump jokes, that’s their prerogative. But if you want to win, it might not be the best strategy.”

There are rumors this year of Perlmutter returning as a judge, though he did not respond to an email asking for comment. Either way, Gallagher, who claims he is undefeated in the competition, has opted for a display with broad appeal. The focal point is a Miller Lite inflatable lounge chair.

“We just lose the teetotaler vote with ours, whereas they’re pissing off half the country,” Gallagher said.

‘A bit like Oppenheimer’

Pissed off or not, members are still participating in large numbers, and the customary friendly competition and trash talk has continued.

“It’s definitely gotten bigger,” Crow said. “A lot more members participate, and people will go kind of appropriately overboard, as I like to say.”

“I do feel a bit like Oppenheimer, you know? It’s like, what have I created?” Gallagher said, referring to the infamous director of the Manhattan Project and father of the atomic bomb.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were few unadorned stretches on the second floor of Longworth. Lights twinkled around doorways, signs declared “Happy Hanukkah,” and large inflatables obstructed parts of the hallway.

Outside the office of Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, the googly-eyed Philadelphia Flyers mascot, Gritty, stood guard next to the Phillie Phanatic. Between them, a picture of Perlmutter in a Santa hat dangled from a Christmas tree.

Philly sports mascots stand outside Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon’s office on the second floor of the Longworth Building, where holiday decorating has become a sport. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Washington Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer went heavy on the “Star Wars”-themed decorations, including Luke Skywalker and Yoda. (“Huge nerd,” Gallagher quipped.) Ross chose snowflakes paired with candy-cane cutouts.

“I think everybody’s doing a good job. But I think everyone is stepping up because of what we did,” said Pettersen, who said she was among the first this year to start decorating.

In past years, members have traded joking allegations of sabotage. Perlmutter claimed at one point that his decorations were either stolen or deflated. And Gallagher is still salty at Crow for allegedly tampering with one of his displays.

“What was initially a friendly, fun holiday thing became an all-out arms race, to the point where Crow sabotaged one of our inflatables,” Gallagher said, referring to an incident in which Crow’s office swiped an inflatable reindeer from the Wisconsin Republican and returned it with a “Team Crow” T-shirt. “He still has to answer for his crimes.”

“It’s not our fault that the reindeer preferred Team Crow over Team Gallagher. Obviously, we welcomed the poor reindeer to Team Crow, as any hospitable office would,” Crow said.

Rep. Derek Kilmer shows off his love of Star Wars outside his second-floor Longworth office. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As the competition has grown, other floors in the office building have started to get involved. More than a handful of members on the ground floor had decorated by Tuesday afternoon, and though the third floor was still relatively barren, Crow made the case that the focus of the competition had shifted.

“I’ve moved to the third floor, so the third floor is certainly the epicenter now of the competition,” Crow said.

“The third floor is like the Chicago Bears of the Christmas competition. Like yes, they’re in the league. But barely,” Gallagher said. “But that’s cute.”

And as more offices have begun to participate, the pressure has ramped up. 

Gallagher on Tuesday afternoon took a stroll to scope out the competition, and upon his return, immediately ordered reinforcements for his already elaborate display.

“We don’t want to be defeated by victory,” Gallagher told his staff, sounding more like a football coach than a congressman. “Complacency kills. We can’t ever — EVER — get complacent.”

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