Long ago, in a pre-9/11 world, our parish choir treasured a thank you letter from the White House in Washington DC.
In December 1998 and again in 1999, SFDS Parish Chorale represented the Great State of Pennsylvania, singing a short medley of traditional carols one evening to White House visitors. Each state sent a diverse musical delegation, for a total of over 2,600 performers through the holiday season. Other Pennsylvania groups included Renaissance of Dover; LanChester Chorus of Christiana; The Eric Mintel Quartet of Morrisville; and the Rankin Junior Tambouritzens of Pittsburgh.
When our choir arrived on a chartered bus, they were ushered into “A Winter Wonderland” — announced by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as the 1998 theme for the all-American holiday festivities. According to documents in The Clinton Library, the Blue Room tree that year featured snowman ornaments “designed by artists, recommended by the governors’ spouses in each of the fifty states.” Members of The Knitting Guild of America, from across the country, contributed little mittens and hats; and the Society of Decorative Painters crafted wooden decorations related to winter sports. An elaborate gingerbread house in the State Dining Room weighed over 150 pounds, and featured miniature versions of the Clintons’ cat Socks and dog Buddy frolicking in an intricate (and edible) snowy landscape.
The East Room, where our choir sang, was “ transformed into an enchanted glittering wonderland…decorated with eighteen soaring conical trees…” The press department noted that “The traditional White House creche,” or Nativity scene, which formed “the focal point of the East Room, was made in Naples, Italy in the late 18th century. It features 47 carved wood and terra cotta figures. The creche…has been displayed each year at the White House since it was presented in 1967” (a tradition which continues today). A hand-crafted menorah was displayed in the West Wing.
Times were very different then. Security seemed minimal: choir members just submitted social security numbers ahead of time, brought identification, and observed the expected protocols. Fran Byers does remember a heavy presence of the Secret Service at one of the concerts – bringing their spouses and children, for their departmental family holiday gathering!
There’s a pleasant nostalgia in thinking about snowmen and Christmas carols in the heat of the summer, and recalling a more optimistic time. This year, Philadelphia hosts a political convention, and, hopefully, we can be as welcoming.