The theme at the White House that year was simple: Home for the Holidays.
But in 2001, in the days and months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many didn’t make it home.
National security concerns remained at an all-time high; tours of the White House were temporarily suspended.
And few people got to see the holiday theme and decorations prepared during the first Christmas that President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush spent in the White House.
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A recreation of the decorations — complete with an18-foot tree that once occupied the Blue Room and dollhouse versions of 18 family homes of American presidents — is on full display at the George W. Bush Presidential Center this year.
“I picked the theme, Home for the Holidays, in March, right after George and I moved into the White House,” Laura Bush said Monday during an unveiling of the exhibit to the media. “I thought it would be a really fun and informative theme for our visitors.
“As it turned out, after Sept. 11, it meant so much more to us and it was really a poignant theme,” she said. “There were people, of course, who weren’t home and weren’t at the Christmas dinner for the holiday celebration because they either were lost on Sept. 11 or because they were deployed to Afghanistan.”
This Christmas display, the first special exhibit at the center, remains open to the public until Jan. 5.
The centerpiece is the 18-foot tree decked out with dozens of ornaments — white and gold bulbs, pure white mini-versions of historical buildings from across the country, clear ornaments resembling icicles and plenty of fake snow.
Also displayed are presidential messages, photos taken as the White House was being decorated, the Menorah that Bush helped light inside the White House that year, the Bush family Christmas card, even formal dresses Laura Bush wore.
More than a dozen gifts sent to the Bush family are on display as well: A red, white and blue knitted Christmas stocking; a red, white and blue Angel, holding an American flag, to top the tree; a black suede yarmulke that had an American flag patch sewn onto it; even a vintage Christmas card from 1946, the year both George W. and Laura Bush were born.
“I’m so glad so many people now will have the opportunity to come see this show,” Laura Bush said.
There will also be special programs, musical performances, crafts for children, daily readings and a brief period Dec. 18-19 when Santa Claus will be in the Oval Office.
Planning for their first Christmas at the White House had actually begun months before the 2001 attacks rocked the world and left a grieving country.
Electricians, florists, designers, carpenters and more had begun on the mountain of work to turn the White House into a near Winter Wonderland.
The former first lady said she had wanted doll house-like versions of homes where former presidents lived, depicting everything from Lyndon Baines Johnson’s ranch in Texas to George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon.
On top of that, artists from across the country were invited to send in small versions of other historic buildings from across the country, which were all hung on one massive tree in the White House Blue Room. Texas’ ornament depicted the Presidio Chapel of San Elizario in the Davis Mountains. Laura Bush said her favorite ornament was the pure white Twin Towers that appeared to rest on top of clouds.
But after the attacks, few people got to see the decorations.
Laura Bush remembered the “grief and sadness, vulnerability and fear” that Americans felt that year.
And despite George W. Bush’s call for the country to return to normal as much as possible, the Secret Service decided that the White House should be closed to tourists who normally would view the Christmas decorations on display there.
Dub and Betsy Pierce could hardly take their eyes off the White House Christmas tree once they saw it.
“It’s amazing,” Dub Pierce, 78, of Abilene said. “I don’t know what to think. This is awesome to say the least.”
His wife agreed.
“I have been so excited about this particular exhibit,” she said. “It’s beautiful.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous.”