Official White House Christmas Ornaments Are a 40-Year Tradition

By: Alia Hoyt  | 
2022 official White House Christmas ornament
The 2022 official White House Christmas ornament is seen among other Christmas decorations in the White House as part of first lady Dr. Jill Biden's "We the People" decorative theme. Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Finally, something related to politics that's not likely to start a fight. White House buffs need look no further to find Christmas ornaments that are both beautiful and historically significant. The White House Historical Association (WHHA) has designed and sold a new commemorative ornament every year since in 1981. That very first ornament was a trumpeting silver angel, based on a weather vane and simply inscribed with the words "Christmas 1981 The White House."

Since then, ornament inscriptions have remained fairly consistent, with only slight variations in structure. However, the designs have an impressive range. Some have depicted images/likenesses of the White House itself, while others have incorporated holiday symbols like Santa and Christmas trees.


Each ornament pays tribute to a former president, in chronological order. 2022's gingerbread ornament commemorates the presidency of Richard M. Nixon; during Nixon's presidency, a White House gingerbread house was first made by a chef, and the tradition continues today.

The ornaments are "designed to commemorate a presidential administration or to mark a landmark anniversary in the history of the White House," emails Marcia Anderson, chief publishing officer with the WHHA and author of "The Official White House Christmas Ornament: Collected Stories of a Holiday Tradition." "Millions of these ornaments now decorate Christmas trees in the United States and abroad — and many have even been hung on trees in the White House itself."


How the White House Christmas Ornaments Got Started

1981 ornament
The very first White House Christmas ornament was 1981's angel.
The White House Historical Association

Although the White House commemorative ornaments probably seem like a no-brainer to those involved, they actually began as a one-off 40 years ago, Anderson explains. It all began during President Ronald Reagan's tenure in 1981, when the WHHA created the trumpeting angel piece. The inaugural ornament "proved an immediate and unexpected success," Anderson says, noting that word of the ornament spread like wildfire throughout Washington D.C.'s federal employees. The employees "lined up to purchase the ornament at the Association's small headquarters and when it was featured on 'The Today Show,' orders came in from all over the nation."

And just like that, the WHHA realized that they had a hit on their hands, so planning began for the 1982 ornament. They stuck with the weather vane theme, this time depicting the Dove of Peace that is famously perched atop Mount Vernon, which was President George Washington's plantation and beloved home.


How Ornament Designs Are Chosen

The 2008  Christmas Ornament
The 2008 Christmas Ornament depicts a horse-drawn carriage. Julia Ewan/The The Washington Post via Getty Images

Although most people probably just marvel at each ornament's beauty, there's actually an underlying point to every one. With subsequent ornaments, the WHHA began a theme of commemorating each presidential administration in chronological order, with "occasional pauses in the chronological march to recognize White House anniversaries," Anderson says. For example, the 1989 ornament commemorates the bicentennial of the presidency.

Indeed, the WHHA decided early on that every ornament must be directly related to the White House and should also serve an educational purpose. Every ornament comes with a booklet which explains how the ornament design relates to either a specific presidency or event.


With every passing ornament, sales increased, Anderson says, leading to the hiring of temporary employees to get the orders out. "Longtime employees and customers still remember the long lines that wrapped around the block and stretched down H Street despite rain and snow. When inventory temporarily ran out, as it often did in the weeks before Christmas, determined customers often chose to wait in line for hours until the next delivery truck arrived," she recalls.

Fortunately, long lines are no longer necessary, as times have changed quite a lot since the first ornaments went on sale. Now, people have the internet to turn to and often don't have to leave their homes to make the purchase. In fact, many retail establishments stock the ornaments for sale, as do federal offices like the U.S. Postal Service.

Ornament sales serve to fund the WHHA, a nonprofit organization that works to "enhance the understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the historic White House," says Anderson. "Since the mid-1980s income from ornament sales has played a significant role in funding the Association's mission." She adds that around 1 million ornaments are sold each year. They retail currently for $24.95 each.


How the Ornaments Have Changed Over Time

The White House ornaments definitely had a certain vibe in the early days. The first two were made using copper with a "chemically patinated finish that gave a weathered look," Anderson says. However, anyone who purchases a reissue of White House ornaments made in that particular style will notice that they've got a 24-karat gold-finished brass, which she notes helps them retain their shine and never tarnish.

Ornament designs have become more complex over the years, beginning with the addition of moving parts in 1984 and enamel colors in 1986. Other decorations are two-sided, and some are three-dimensional, Anderson says. A hologram is part of the 2009 ornament, and the 2015 piece boasted hidden LED lights.


Although change is good, tradition also has its place. That's why the inscriptions on each ornament are fairly consistent, with "The White House," "Christmas" and the year included in varying orders on each one. They also come with either a gold cord or a ribbon for ease of hanging.

You can take a look at the White House holiday ornaments through the years at this White House Historical Association digital gallery.