It takes a village to put on a White House Christmas

'Tis the season for parties - and more parties - as the Clintons celebrate their last Christmas at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Say what you like about the Clintons' upcoming departure - they're clearly going out in style.

As the White House enters its holiday entertaining season, President and Mrs. Clinton are gearing up for a round of parties that promise to be bigger - and more sentimental - than any of the past seven Christmases.

So many people are coming, they have to be accommodated in shifts. From this week until Dec. 22, the first couple will host a record 26 parties, entertaining as many as 20,000 politicians, staff, supporters, and media.

Guests will be treated to an eye-popping display of 324 wreaths, 44 Christmas trees, 1,100 feet of garlands, and nearly 13,000 ornaments and lights (and that last just for the main tree in the Blue Room).

The first couple "just loves the holidays," says White House social secretary Capricia Marshall. But now that they're entering their final season on Pennsylvania Avenue, this year's Christmas celebrations, it seems, may also come with a heavy dose of nostalgia.

"They are very, very weepy," says Ms. Marshall. "They're melancholy about it being the last year."

One way the Clintons have set out to fix that is by inviting everyone they can think of to celebrate with them. Usually, the little cream-colored RSVP card applies only to "your guest and yourself." Sometimes, guests ask to go beyond the two-person limit, seeking to bring along that daughter or son who has yet to shake hands with the first couple.

But this year, according to Marshall, the list of "special requests" has doubled. And the Clintons, she says, "want to have everyone in."

Of course, Christmas at the White House has always been an elaborate affair. Typically, it takes a year to plan and hundreds of volunteers to put together.

Each year, the first lady chooses a decorating theme. In keeping with the Clintons' unofficial theme of nostalgia, this year's design concept is "reflections" - a look back over the themes of the past seven years.

With a few exceptions, no new decorations were created. Instead, old favorites have been unboxed from past seasons. Velvet ribbons were carefully unfolded and pressed. Balls and angels were repainted and reglittered.

Mrs. Clinton spent "days and weeks" overseeing the work, deciding what ornaments to showcase and how, said Marshall, as she walked the press through the pine-scented residence this week.

The president had a hand in the preparations as well. After playing golf with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien last weekend, he went upstairs and taste-tested the sugary confections for the mantlepiece decorations.

The final result is a kind of ornamental trip down memory lane: There's the tree in the East Wing foyer decorated with miniature Santa suits - made by fashion designers - from 1997's "Santa's Workshop." There's also a giant sleigh filled with needlepoint "kissing balls" - an alternative to mistletoe.

The tree in the library has a sampling of last year's architectural trimmings, replicas of historic buildings from across the country. The diplomatic reception room, with rich murals of American frontier scenes, features a tree with needlepoint ornaments from all the years.

"The hard part was picking which ones" to use, admitted White House florist Nancy Clarke.

Upstairs on the state floor, last year's sumptuous collection of maroon-colored fruit garlands is draped in the State Dining Room, which also includes a gingerbread house designed by pastry chef Roland Mesnier. It's a replica of the White House containing miniature hints from all of his past gingerbread houses.

At the opposite end of the residence, the East Room is aglow in gold and yellow, Mrs. Clinton's favorite colors.

After it's all over, the decorations will be packed up and shipped to a storage facility in Little Rock, Ark., where they will wait for their eventual home in the Clinton library.

Next year, there will be a new first family and a new series of parties. The cycle of entertaining will continue, says White House butler Von Everett, who first came to work here in the Reagan administration. And, while each family does things a little differently, he says, in many ways "all the Christmases are about the same. They're all nice."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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