By Dana Gray, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON – This year’s White House Historical Association’s 39th official White House Christmas ornament honors a precedent that, to later generations of Americans, became routine.
That precedent was a president of the United States riding in a helicopter. The first president to do it was Dwight D. Eisenhower.
This year’s ornament takes the shape of a helicopter, representing Eisenhower as both an innovator and the first president to have flown in that aircraft while in office.
“It was sort of by happenstance that Eisenhower took his first helicopter ride,” association president Stewart McLaurin told First Coast News in November.
Following Eisenhower’s presidency, the use of helicopters has become a standard feature of presidential travel.
Flight crews from the United States Army and the United States Marine Corps provided flights for the president. However, to show impartiality, Eisenhower (even though he was a former five-star Army general) alternated between the two helicopters and respective military personnel.
To highlight this, the official White House ornament does not represent the helicopter in the specific designs from either military branch.
One side of the American-made ornament features the presidential seal marking Eisenhower’s two terms as the 34th president from 1953 to 1961. The other side honors Eisenhower’s five-star rank as General of the Army.
The inside of the ornament packaging depicts the South Lawn where the presidential helicopter lands when arriving at and departing from the White House.
The Lockheed Martin Co. has built the presidential helicopter since 1957 and has flown every president since Eisenhower. The White House Christmas ornament is supported by Lockheed Martin and celebrates that legacy.
Following their commission in 1981, the annual ornaments have become a long-standing tradition to celebrate American presidents and historical White House milestones.
Past ornaments have highlighted different achievements of the presidents. Last year’s ornament, which was a tribute to President Harry Truman, highlighted three major changes made to the White House during his presidency.
These changes included the addition of the Truman Balcony on the south side of the White House, the renovation of the Blue Room, and alterations made to the presidential seal.
The White House Historical Association was founded in 1961 by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization has worked to preserve and honor the history of the White House as well as the country.
First Lady Nancy Reagan introduced the tradition of the annual ornament in 1981, 20 years after the association’s founding.
Since then, the official Christmas ornaments have become collectors’ items, having sequentially honored each president from George Washington through Eisenhower as well as celebrating the bicentennial of the presidency, the bicentennial of the White House cornerstone and the 200th anniversary of the White House.
“Mrs. Reagan was very wise in deciding that we would feature president’s sequentially so we don’t have to decide who it will be each year,” Stewart said.
Profits from the yearly Christmas ornaments assist in supporting the association’s work with “acquisition, preservation, research, and education efforts,” according to the association’s website.
The 2019 ornament is available for $22.95 online at the White House Historical Association’s website, on Amazon or in person at the White House Visitor Center in Washington.
Previous years’ ornaments are still available for purchase, accompanied by detailed brochures highlighting the historical significance of each ornament.