Coleen Christian Burke was watching the decorators at work on HGTV's “White House Christmas” television special when a brazen proclamation slipped from her lips and fell on the ears of her children.
“I impulsively said, 'Mom's going to do that next year,'” Burke recalls.
Burke, who was just establishing herself as a holiday decorator in Glen Ridge, N.J., at the time, was riveted by every festive trim, gorgeous arrangement and glittering branch that flashed across the television screen.
Compelled to make good on her boast and enhance her decorating resume, Burke embarked on a quest to participate in decking the halls of America's most famous address — 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. — for the holidays. “Four years and 300 letters and sketches later,” Burke received a coveted invitation to help first lady Laura Bush implement her 2008 decor theme.
Burke was a guest speaker at the Lauritzen Gardens Antique Show and Sale earlier this fall, where we spoke with her about the second printing of her book, “Christmas With the First Ladies.”
When the call came from Nancy Clarke, White House chief floral designer, Burke's first thought was that a friend or family member was playing a practical joke. But after a background check, Burke was cleared to join 40 other decorators from around the country for a decorating marathon that began in a Washington, D.C., warehouse that was brimming with holiday decorations, furniture, artwork and other home accessories.
“I felt like I was in a scene from 'National Treasure,'” Burke said of the adventure heist film starring Nicolas Cage.
Through the research for her book, Burke concluded that White House occupants “really aren't that different from the rest of us when it comes to celebrating Christmas.”
What was extraordinary, she found, was the creativity and design know-how among the crafters and decorators who assemble each year to decorate the White House.
Burke's team spent two long, exhausting days in 2008 making moss tree skirts for icicle trees and hanging bows, bunting, ornaments and more. They were rewarded with a surprise pep talk by President George W. Bush and an invitation to the first Christmas party of the season.
After the experience, Burke searched for a book that offered historical insight into past Christmases at the White House. She found none. So she drew on her skills as a former network news producer and began making calls and researching presidential libraries.
Her book, subtitled “The White House Decorating Tradition from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama,” blends anecdotes and photos of presidential families during the holiday season, as well as craft ideas and recipes straight from the first ladies' personal files.
“Our house got pretty exciting as reference materials arrived from Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter,” says Burke. “Opening the parcels was just like Christmas itself.”
Betty Ford, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush all offered encouragement, Burke says.
The book reveals that Lady Bird Johnson's themes of home and family helped a nation heal after John F. Kennedy's death; Nancy Reagan sought to renew a childlike sense of wonder; and Laura Bush's red, white and blue Christmas in 2001 spoke to a nation banding together after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
The book highlights Jackie Kennedy first because she brought forth the idea of decorating the White House around a theme. “When I saw pictures of the Kennedys celebrating Christmas at the White House, I thought to myself, 'It's a sin these pictures are hidden away in a presidential library.'
“The first ladies came to life for me. I had never seen any of the first families in this way. This book is my fourth 'child' and my best child. It never gives me any trouble. It was a labor of love.”
Author Coleen Christian Burke is married with three children, ages 9, 12 and 14. The family lives in Glen Ridge, N.J., which was in the path of Hurricane Sandy. Their home escaped severe damage but the storm left the family without electricity for 12 days.