Cowboy-boot ornaments and 800 pounds of 'snow'

Laura Bush, dressed in holiday red, reaches over to the towering Christmas tree in the White House Blue Room and gently pulls an ornament from behind a branch for visiting reporters to see.

Naturally, it's a reminder of Texas - a miniature leather cowboy boot. "It's one of my favorites," she says before clicking softly over the wood floor to the next stop on her Christmas tour.

'Tis the season at the White House, when the first lady plays Martha Stewart to the Washington elite during the biggest month of the year for entertaining. Traditionally, the public also gets to tour these halls - but not this year. Because of security concerns, the White House is closed to tourists, who have to be content with a 10-minute video at the visitors' center instead of the sweet smell of fir trees in the East Room.

It's not something the Bushes - or the tourist-strapped capital - are happy about. But metal detectors at the national tree-lighting on Thursday, as well as a more serious and subdued approach to the holidays, are ways the White House is balancing holiday festivities with the threats of terrorism.

For instance, Mrs. Bush changed the White House Christmas card this year to include two verses from the 27th Psalm: "Thy face, Lord, do I seek: I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!" It was an unusual, direct religious message. But the first family heard those words at a Camp David church service just after Sept. 11, and they wanted to share them, Mrs. Bush says.

Other first families also had to change holiday plans during national tragedies and war. The president's house was closed to the public during both world wars. Back then, however, the Roosevelts and Wilsons were not thronged with 80,000 holiday tourists as the Clintons were last year.

In 1963, after the assassination of President John Kennedy, White House holiday decoration did not begin until the 30 days of mourning were over - on Dec. 23.

"The president and Mrs. Johnson did a small bit of decorating and invited members of Congress for a reception, but that was it," says White House curator Betty Monkman.

Allida Black, a George Washington University expert on Eleanor Roosevelt, says it's still possible for the White House to share the holidays yet take into account somber circumstances today.

"You can do both, because the White House can set the tone for us," she says. While Mrs. Roosevelt didn't host huge parties in December, she visited the sick, poor, and disadvantaged, says Ms. Black. In her newspaper columns, she urged Americans to join in the Christmas spirit and make life "just a little bit brighter wherever we touch it."

Now, Laura Bush is delivering a similar message, saying this week that she hopes everyone will "reach out" to people in their communities and work at food banks to "make sure every American gets a holiday meal."

At the White House, meanwhile, lawmakers, reporters, and military officials will walk through a forest of 49 trees, shimmering icicles, and 800 pounds of artificial snow to get to the holiday treats - lamb chops and jumbo shrimp - supplemented by the Bush touch of spicy quesadillas and empanadas.

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