In their place: red-and-white striped knit stockings with green heels dangling brightly from a hearth, family photos, handwritten thank-you notes and an arch of presents in bright red boxes.
The Biden White House Christmas décor, unveiled Monday, isn’t nearly as stylised or surreal as the Trump-endorsed looks that preceded them. Oh, it’s plenty cheerful and sparkly, but in the context of recent White House holiday styles, it’s positively … accessible.
In this, it is fully in line with the tactile, unpretentious image that the current first couple likes to project. The president and first lady: Just like us! Their home is your home, only a little more so. It did, after all, require 6,000 feet of ribbon, over 300 candles, more than 10,000 ornaments and about 78,750 holiday lights to dress the White House for the holidays, according to the office of the first lady.
That’s why Christmas at the White House is such a useful moment of pageantry, especially at a time when the usual communicative ceremonies of office — state dinners, White House tours — are on hold. Indeed, Biden’s office said she had been working on the decorations since late May. Decking the halls is one of the few widely shared, or at least widely recognized, rituals we have. That’s useful. Most people can relate.
It’s why Melania Trump’s choices caused so much controversy. Some — especially late-night TV hosts — found her alley of unnatural trees alienating; others saw them as aspirational, if unachievable (and all the more desirable for being so out of reach). And it’s why the fact that the Biden look is so unremarkable is, itself, worth remarking on. It’s a hard balancing act to pull off: walking the fine line between fancy and folksy, between representing the republic to the most polished degree and relating to the republic. Not just politically, but visually.
But what about two occasions? Or three? Because the workaround Biden has devised and made her own is not to do what Rosalynn Carter did, when she was attempting to be relatable during the stagflation of the late 1970s, and wear seemingly homespun clothes (that got Carter criticised for being frumpy), but rather to wear very expensive, high-end clothes — to represent both the US fashion industry and the ambitions of the country — and then to re-wear them.
She did it during her first international trip, during the Group of Seven summit in June, and when she represented the president at the Tokyo Olympics. And she did it again with her Christmas dress, which she wore only a month before — in Italy for a lunch with spouses at the G-20. This week she wore it to read to a class of second-graders and to thank a group of volunteers who helped with the decorations, but chances are it will get another airing sometime soon.
It may seem absurd to laud someone for re-wearing an expensive dress or to see it as anything other than normal behaviour, but then, that’s the point. Because for the last few administrations — and for many people in the public eye, even if it’s only the eye of Instagram — the pressure to promote new stuff was an accepted part of the job. It’s extremely rare to see a celebrity wear the same thing twice (most of them don’t even want to wear a dress once it’s arrived in stores); such was also the case for Michelle Obama and Melania Trump during their times as first ladies.
Like them, Biden understands that decoration — of her house, of her person — is a tool at her disposal, but unlike them she is using it to normalize what is by any account an abnormal role. Just like the way she is using tinsel and turtledoves. They are secular expressions of the “faith, family and friendship” described in the welcome letter of the commemorative 2021 White House Holiday Guide: everyday examples of the things — sometimes as simple as favourite shirtdresses and poinsettias — that “unite us.”
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