More than a Museum
Christmas at the White House was truly magical according to Nancy Reagan. " I loved Christmas even though it was a very busy time."
To share the aura of the White House at Christmas, the Reagan's decided to invite young American artists to paint scenes of the Executive Mansion for their official Christmas cards. Mrs. Reagan thought people would enjoy seeing the different rooms as works of art.
Jamie Wyeth was one of three generations of American artists. He was the first one to get an invite from the Reagan’s. Wyeth came to Washington in September to get inspired. He was not particularly interested in painting a room and was given the freedom to find a subject and sketch whatever he wanted. As he wandered throughout the White House, it struck him that the Executive Mansion was more than a museum, it was President's home. "We tend to forget that the First Family actually lives here. They prepare for Christmas late at night just like everyone else, "he said. Wyeth decided to try something instructive and different - to symbolize by a single light that this is Christmas Eve at the President's House.
To develop his idea, he literally sat on the lawn and began to paint the the South Portico of the White House. Using his skill of imagination, he sketched the house under a blanket of snow and a star-studded sky. In doing so, he unveiled the mystery of what the White House would look like lit with one single light. With his brush, he cast a spell of indigo all over the page, in such a way that it took Hallmark eight separations to reproduce the colors correctly.
When Wyeth showed it to the Reagan's, the First Lady got the message! She explained, "It looks like everyone else had gone to bed and I was still in my dressing room wrapping presents and doing all those things you do the night before Christmas. I loved it!"
The art was reproduced by Hallmark and graced 65,000 Christmas cards in 1981. Their engraved message in deep blue script read, "The President and Mrs. Reagan extend to you their best wishes for a joyous Christmas and a peaceful New Year."
Three years later Wyeth was invited back and painted an exterior scene on Christmas Morning. As he explored the grounds around the White House, he couldn’t help but notice all the squirrels. When the President was with him, Wyeth observed that President Reagan fed the squirrels with acorns from a bag in his office. That became his inspiration for a more intimate scene of life at the White House.
Wyeth painted a peaceful scene of the North Portico, blanketed by new fallen snow. An American flag, placed over the residence, unfurled in the gentle breeze above. Only a single squirrel, left his calling card--little paw prints winding through the fresh snow at dawn.
I never appreciated this 1984 Christmas card until I interviewed Mrs Reagan, who, by the way, loved Wyeth's interpretation. She told me that it reminded her of their weekends at Camp David. "My husband and I would go up every weekend we could. He would gather nuts for the squirrels at the White House and put them in front of the door by the Oval Office. The squirrels began to know the nuts would be there and they would come every Monday. One weekend-- there weren't any nuts--I don't know what happened. The squirrels came to the door of the oval room and they were very upset--very upset and they made their feelings known!" she said.
With that story, I got the message! Here was a White House squirrel coming to have breakfast with the President!