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A Very Melania Christmas

First lady Melania Trump walks around the 2020 official White House Christmas tree after it arrived at the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. This year's tree is an 18.5-foot Fraser Fir, selected and cut from Dan and Bryan Trees in Shepherdstown, W. Va. (Andrew Harnik/AP
First lady Melania Trump walks around the 2020 official White House Christmas tree after it arrived at the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. This year's tree is an 18.5-foot Fraser Fir, selected and cut from Dan and Bryan Trees in Shepherdstown, W. Va. (Andrew Harnik/AP

Gratitude for blessings being a salve for adversity, I’m reminding myself to be grateful for the coming Biden Administration during this un-merry, COVID-19 Christmas. But while I can’t wait for the end of Donald Trump’s four-year humbug, I side atypically with his White House in this yuletide’s divisive dispute (no, not that dispute):

Should decorations be “over-the-top” or “strikingly normal?”

The New York Times’s startled use of the latter description for Melania Trump’s holiday adornments had nothing to do with her choosing a normal, happier year’s decor. It was that she chose normal at all, given her history of decorations better suited to Halloween. It took until the Trumps’ final Christmas at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for this administration to do something that didn’t nauseate me, but better late than never. Were I First Gentleman, my decorating would be closer to the First Lady’s 2020 iteration than to the competing school of a lousy year needs a garish Christmas.

That philosophy finds its Plato in Dorinda Medley. Befitting a former Real Housewife of New York City, Medley outfitted her Berkshires home with a nutcracker. A nine-foot-tall nutcracker. “When I pressed the button,” she told Vox, “I was like, ‘What have I done?’ But now it’s on the American Express, paid for, and I’m happy for it.”

Because nothing says Christmas like American Express.

... for my own home, I’m allied in spirit if not scale with Ms. Trump, reformed from her previous excess by the ghost of Christmas carping past.

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This debate is playing out among the perpetually polarized public. Vox reported that while customers are vacuuming up traditional greens this year, they’re also buying more than the usual volume of artificial trees, outdoor displays, and lights, all in service to masquerading as the Vegas Strip. This despite the Times’s best efforts at showiness-shaming: “Even as whales starve because of the plastic they have consumed, and landfills swell beyond all reason, one age-old holiday tradition that has been hard to shake is the habit of excess. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans produce a colossal amount of waste, throwing out, by some estimates, 25 percent more stuff than they usually do, over one million extra tons of garbage each week.”

I confess that my heart flutters with holiday joy when I pass displays lighting up the December night, and I’d gawk with at least partial awe at a behemoth nutcracker. But for my own home, I’m allied in spirit if not scale with Ms. Trump, reformed from her previous excess by the ghost of Christmas carping past. (Or perhaps she feared that ostentatiousness amid the pandemic’s joblessness and want might suggest let them eat cake rather than Merry Christmas.)

Two years ago, Trump’s blood-red Christmas trees drew comparisons to horror movies. The year before that, Vogue likened her white-ice motif to an “apocalyptic, barren landscape similar to what some of us imagine lies in America’s future, or the calming white walls of a mental institution.” This year, in contrast, she selected trees of natural green, festooned with silver, gold and red ornaments and white lights. On one table, a toy train runs around a wreath. The whole effect is more colonial Williamsburg than Trump Tower. Except, perhaps, for the 275-pound gingerbread White House, but the presidential residence is entitled to some indulgence.

I relate to FLOTUS’s heretofore camouflaged traditionalism. Each Christmas, I revisit some of the holiday literature of the early 19th century, the cradle of today’s rituals. This year, Washington Irving’s Bracebridge stories about a fictional English Christmas reminded me what that early enthusiast thought a traditional celebration should look like.

Irving describes two Christmas candles, “wreathed with greens,” glowing on the buffet of a country squire. I’ve done a money-saving tweak by lighting a single Advent candle on our mantle, flanked by holly. Notched with the 24-day runup to Christmas, the candle burns one notch a night, marking the anticipation of the day that, for me, is more joyous than its arrival. (Of course, the taper’s religious aspect invokes a Christmas story even older than Irving’s.)

I’m unaccustomed to applauding Trump tastefulness, two words I never thought I’d string together. But grace toward one's opponents seems apt in the season of peace on earth, goodwill to all.

My family is tardy in getting a tree, but when we do, it won’t be blood-red. As our fireplace is decorative rather than functional, we’ve forgone Bracebridge mansion’s blazing Yule log. But we’ve laced our home with greens as the old squire did. And pace one of Irving’s literary contemporaries, our stockings are hung by the chimney with care.

Since we’re invoking gratitude, some is owed, perversely, to conspicuous Christmas consumers. The supernova emanating from their light-enveloped abodes casts in relief the simpler traditions in my home, and Melania’s. I’m unaccustomed to applauding Trump tastefulness, two words I never thought I’d string together. But grace toward one's opponents seems apt in the season of peace on earth, goodwill to all.

Especially as I give thanks that Jill Biden will oversee the White House decorating next year.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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