Holiday Cheer

White House Decorator Coleen Christian Burke Will Speak at Selby Gardens Next Week

Coleen Christian Burke shares behind-the-scenes stories of all the "blood, sweat and glitter" involved in decorating the White House for the holidays.

By Megan McDonald December 1, 2017

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Coleen Christian-Burke at work in the White House

'Tis the season for hanging our stockings by the chimney with care—and few people have more experience with that task, and holiday decorating in general, than former White House design partner Coleen Christian Burke. Christian Burke started out as a holiday design volunteer during the George W. Bush administration, and then was promoted to design partner under the Obama administration. From creating giant moss tree skirts to intimate brainstorming sessions with First Lady Michelle Obama, Christian-Burke is a holiday pro—and she's got her own book and product line to prove it.

On Dec. 6, Christian Burke will speak at Selby Gardens' Holiday Luncheon, where she'll share more about her White House holiday decorating experience and the stories that inspired her products and book. We caught up with her prior to the talk and found out more about how she landed her dream job, her top tips for decorating our own homes and what it's really like running around the White House during the holiday season.  

How did you get into this line of work?

I started out as a TV news producer and traveled the country working on breaking stories. But when my daughter was born, I didn't want to travel anymore—so I took a step back, and started decorating as a side hobby. Word spread, and I branched out and had a little side business going. Then, one year, I was watching an HGTV special about the White House at Christmas, and I was so taken with how spectacular it was and how beautiful everything looked. I thought, "I could volunteer on the production team!"' and I boldly boasted to my kids, "I'm going to do that!"

I started writing letters and making phone calls, sending pictures of my work and proposed sketches and finally, in 2008, I got a call from the White House florist Nancy Clark, who said that Mrs. Bush wanted to invite me to be a part of the holiday decorating team. I couldn't believe it—I never actually thought it was going to happen! And after making that boast in front of my kids, it was definitely a full-circle moment.

What's it like working in the White House?

I started as a volunteer under the Bush administration, and couldn't believe how involved Mrs. Bush was—she really cared about how everything looked and had a lot of input. I showed up the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and we worked Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday at an off-site warehouse. One of my first projects was to make a 14-foot moss tree skirt, hot gluing moss to burlap. After working in the warehouse, we installed everything in the White House on Saturday, Sunday and Monday. All of the boxes are pre-packed at the warehouse, then moved to the White House after they're cleared by security.

White House Christmas decorating is like decorating on steroids—everything is big and important and has to be done fast. It's a lot of fun. It feels pretty special to be running around the White House with wire clippers and a hot glue gun.

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Jackie Kennedy lighting candles during the holidays.

That initial experience inspired you to write a book and launch a product line, right?

 Yes. I found some incredible old pictures [of the White House at Christmas], starting with the Kennedy family, and I thought they were so magical. They'd been donated by the family to the Kennedy Library for the public to see and enjoy. I started doing research at other presidential libraries and finding public pictures, pictures of White House decorations throughout the years and private pictures of the First Families' own family celebrations. They inspired the book, which is a combination photo book of our modern First Ladies and how they celebrate Christmas and a White House lifestyle book with recipes and DIYs. It came out in 2011.

The product line is called the Coleen Christian Burke First Ladies Collection, and it features items inspired by White House Christmas traditions, like a stocking vase based on the Kennedy family's white Christmas stockings. There are also cookie jars, serving platters, pitchers and more.

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President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan

And in 2012, Mrs. Obama used it as a guidebook for her Christmas decorations.

Yes, she wanted to pay tribute to the modern First Ladies and used Christmas With the First Ladies as a guide. I got a lot of phone calls that year asking if I could be on-site, and by that time, my position had risen a little bit—I was in charge of the Green Room, one of the smaller rooms on the state floor, but one that's very beautiful. 

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White House holiday decorations during the Kennedy Administration

What was it like to be invited to become a White House design partner?

After Christmas was installed for 2013, I got a call asking if I would be interested in becoming a White House design partner and interviewing for the position with Mrs. Obama; planning would begin in February. Of course I was interested! We began by kicking around a couple of themes in February, which are like state secrets—if the theme gets out, we don't use it and pick a new one. That year, the front runner was a children's winter wonderland. We had 57 trees; the ones in the Blue Room were 18 feet tall and in the East Room they were 15 feet tall. The scale was huge. It was a tremendous amount of work, but it's the most fun you can possibly have. I always say it's blood, sweat and glitter. 

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Holiday decor in the Reagan White House

Any great perks of the job?

Your breakfast, a snack and lunch iare included and prepared by the White House chef, and at the end of all the work, you're invited back for the Christmas party as a guest. 

Are there any past White House holiday designs that you're particularly partial to?

I always say that whoever I'm talking about is my favorite, although I'm very partial to Mrs. Bush and Mrs. Obama because they extended the experience to me.

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Coleen Christian-Burke

What tips have you learned that we can use in our own holiday decorating?

Start with an apron with pockets and fill it with a small scissors or wire cutters and wire on a spool; if you buy a live tree that has gaps [between the branches], you can use wire to close the holes by wiring branches together. I also always keep candle wax in my apron, which you can buy at craft stores in the candle aisle. You can use it to hold things together, like centerpieces or groupings—Laura Bush especially liked groupings of the same color ornament piled in a vase. The candle wax keeps them in place the entire season, and you don't have to use a glue gun.

To purchase tickets to Coleen Christian Burke's talk at Selby Gardens' Holiday Luncheon, click here

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