KEY WEST – Now her Christmas tree is complete, the woman at the Harry S. Truman Little White House told me.
“I’ve been buying these ornaments every year for the past 10 years,” Katherine Mitchell said, paying for her purchase. “When I heard that our cruise ship was stopping here, I knew that I could get my 2013 White House ornament in Key West.”
When the Carnival Magic made her first stop on our cruise to the Bahamas, I had plenty on my Key West to-do list – Hemingway haunts, Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, Truman Little White House, Duval Street, Mallory Square, Conch train, six-toed cats, Key West chickens and, if I was lucky, one of those fantastic Key West sunsets.
That’s a lot to do in our brief 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. shore stop so I laced on my walking shoes and headed off.
But I had no idea that the White House ornaments even existed until I got to the Truman White House Museum and saw the passenger from Dallas buying one.
Suellen Croteau at the Truman Little White House shared the history of the collectibles and told me that the annual ornaments are the most popular souvenirs for visitors in November and December.
“Absolutely, there are people who wait for them and buy them every year,” she said. “You can get them on the website and other places but people always come in here looking for them.”
Seems that the beautiful ornaments were first created in 1981 by the White House Historical Association as a way to raise money to buy historic furnishings and other items for the White House. The ornament collection honors presidents and special events in the White House and in the nation.
Each ornament also details a bit of the holiday celebration by past presidents. For example, the 2013 ornament honors Woodrow Wilson, the 28th president of the United States.
The years of Wilson’s two terms in office, from 1913 to 1921, were defined by the unprecedented devastation of World War I, yet Wilson himself would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. His life was distinguished by his resolve that “The Great War” would be the war to end all wars. It was President Wilson’s extraordinary quest for a lasting world peace that inspired the design of this year’s ornament.
The centerpiece of the 2013 ornament is an American Elm tree planted by President Wilson on the North Lawn of the White House on Dec. 18, 1913, just before Christmas. To plant a tree is to signify hope, a powerful emotion the president surely needed as his two terms unfolded.
The stately elm tree is depicted as it once stood, a quiet sentinel, beside the President’s House on a wintry day. This snowy scene is surrounded by a 24-karat gold-plated frame comprised of elm leaves on the innermost circle, a wreath of olive branches in the middle, and holly leaves bordering Wilson’s monogram on the outermost circle.
Two peace doves perch on the olive branches, bearing banners that announce “The White House, Christmas 2013.” The words inscribed on the reverse side of the ornament were delivered by President Wilson in his War Message to Congress of April 2, 1917: “Peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.”
Each new ornament is placed on the Christmas tree in the Blue Room of the White House for people to see. But the U.S. President currently in office has no part in deciding what will be depicted on the newest ornament, Croteau said.
“I do get that question – will President Obama and Michelle pick the design for the new ornament?” she said. “No, they won’t. That is done by an executive committee and the President and his wife have nothing to do with the decision.”
As for all those other Key West landmarks, I’ll write more about them later. Keeping my fingers crossed to catch one of those spectacular sunsets as well.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch