WASHINGTON— It’s February, but the White House Historical Association is already gearing up for the Christmas season.
The 38th official White House Christmas ornament was unveiled Monday by the association, continuing a long-standing tradition and instantly creating another collector’s item.
The ornaments were first commissioned in 1981 and, starting with the following year, each one has honored a different White House milestone or past American president.
This year, the spotlight is on Harry S. Truman.
“I think this is one of the most special ornaments we’ve done,” association president Stewart McLaurin told Capital News Service in a telephone interview from Independence, Missouri, following the organization’s official ornament unveiling at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.
“It’s beautiful, it clearly relates to the White House, and it has three clear elements that relate to Truman’s presidency,” he said.
Those three elements highlight three major changes made during the Truman era: two to the White House and one to the presidential seal.
One side of the 2018 ornament features the Truman Balcony, completed on the south side of the White House in 1948. The other side of the ornament displays Truman’s renovated blue room, part of a massive White House reconstruction.
The ornament also has a golden medallion at the top, reflecting a change to the presidential seal proposed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and executed by Truman: previously, the seal featured an eagle facing a cluster of spears. Following the end of World War II, Truman commissioned the new seal to depict the eagle looking the other way at the olive branch, a symbol of peace.
The timing of the release of the new ornament might seem out of season, but it has a logic to it.
“We like to announce them early in the year, on President’s Day, so we can have programs like we did today (at the Truman Library) – lectures that focus on Truman and his legacy,” McLaurin said. “It gives us more time to tell these stories and unpack the president’s time in the White House. And for the design, we want as much time as possible to come up with the idea.”
Beacon Design by ChemArt, a veteran-owned small business based in – appropriately enough – Lincoln, Rhode Island, has tackled the design and manufacturing of the ornaments since the association first commissioned them.
Beacon Design works with the WHHA to create about eight to 10 ornament concepts before deciding on a winner, according to McLaurin. The prototype is then sent to the first lady’s office to get her thoughts.
McLaurin said Melania Trump loved the 2018 model.
This year’s ornament has an intricate design made of a combination of brass and metal with gold plating – an elaborate upgrade from the 1981 ornament’s simple beginning: a thin, two-dimensional copper silhouette of an angel blowing a horn.
In the first year of production, Beacon Design created 1,500 ornaments. In recent years, it has produced nearly a million annually, making ornaments throughout the year according to demand. Ornaments from previous years are also still available for purchase.
Last year’s ornament honored Roosevelt, the 32nd president, and highlighted the eagle carving from his first inauguration podium, while also giving nods to FDR’s “fireside chats” and his Scottish Terrier, Fala.
With 2018’s design now public, McLaurin and the rest of his team now turn their attention to 2019. They’ll begin brainstorming ideas next month for an ornament honoring Truman’s successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
After the 11 remaining presidents, plus another one or two after President Donald Trump, the association eventually is going to catch up to a current administration. McLaurin said his organization is considering starting over with the presidents again, or in the alternative, focusing on a different first lady each year.
Profits from each year’s Christmas ornament go toward supporting the association’s “mission to fund the acquisition of furnishings and artwork for the White House permanent collection, assist in the preservation of the historic rooms, and educate the public on the history of the White House,” according to the WHHA website.
Founded in 1961 by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the association is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to celebrating and preserving the country’s history. Twenty years after its founding, the idea of selling official White House Christmas ornaments was pitched to First Lady Nancy Reagan.
McLaurin said that each year’s ornament has become not only a major source of income for the WHHA, but also an opportunity to teach aspects of history Americans might not otherwise be familiar with.
To further that educational benefit, the association holds lectures and programs relating to each year’s featured president. For example, a Feb. 28 lecture on Truman’s legacy features his grandson, Clifton Daniel, who McLaurin said is a “wonderful storyteller about his grandfather.”
“To me, it’s about education,” McLaurin said. “It’s teaching and telling the stories of the White House and its history, and seeing these stories come to life in particular with young people.”
The 2018 ornament is available for $22.95 on the WHHA’s website and in person at the White House Visitor Center, the historic Decatur House, both in Washington, and the Truman Library. Previous ornaments are also available for purchase. Each one comes packaged with a brochure outlining its historical significance.