Christmas at the White House: An Interview with Michelle Obama

First Lady Michelle Obama talks to Ladies' Home Journal Editor-in-Chief Sally Lee about the holiday traditions that mean the most to her.
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SO MANY FIRST FAMILIES HAVE MADE THEIR IMPACT ON HOLIDAY TRADITIONS AT THE WHITE HOUSE. WHAT WILL THE OBAMAS' LEGACY BE?

Michelle Obama: I hope that it's a legacy of inclusion. We try to invite choirs from all over the country to come and sing and entertain. Congress comes and important famous people come. But I'm also thinking about a little kid from Kansas who is able to make the trip to see the house. We have a reception almost twice a day, every day, until December 21. That means hors d'oeuvres and eggnog and cookies for every guest who comes through. The house smells incredible for an entire month.

DO ALL THOSE HOLIDAY TREATS MEAN EXTRA GYM TIME FOR YOU?

Oh yeah! But the President and I are usually working. We're in a receiving line or a photo line, greeting people, so fortunately there's very little time for us to eat.

WHAT WERE YOUR HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS LIKE WHEN YOU WERE A LITTLE GIRL GROWING UP IN CHICAGO?

Christmas has always been a special time in my household. Growing up, we lived in a little-bitty apartment, but my mom put her heart and soul into decorating that house. She would take cardboard and make a chimney over our radiator because she wanted us to feel like we had something for Santa Claus to come down. Our extended family was so large, people couldn't really afford to buy gifts for everyone. So a couple of our aunts would go out and purchase small gifts. They would put them in a basket and in order to get a gift you had to perform. Everyone from the smallest to the tallest, from the oldest to the youngest, had to perform something. You could tell a joke, read a poem, do a backflip -- anything counted. It's a tradition that we've carried on today.

WHAT KIND OF PERFORMANCES DO YOU AND THE PRESIDENT DO AT THIS FAMILY TALENT SHOW?

I've hula-hooped, done a dog trick with Bo, and read poems. The kids will sing or put on plays. The President and some of the other dads will get together and do a song.

YOU SPEND THE HOLIDAY IN HAWAII, WHERE THE PRESIDENT GREW UP. WHAT'S CHRISTMAS MORNING LIKE?

When the girls were little, they used to get us up at the crack of dawn. But as many families can probably appreciate, the older your kids get the later they wake up -- which is a blessing for us. Our friends will come over and we'll have breakfast or brunch. Then we'll open a few gifts. It tends to be a peaceful day.

DO SASHA AND MALIA HAND YOU A LONG CHRISTMAS LIST OF THINGS THEY WANT, LIKE MOST KIDS DO?

I'll tell my kids, think of three things that you want. And it turns out they usually don't have much on their lists, because they understand that anything they need they already have. The kids are not in the habit of viewing Christmas as a time for getting gifts. It's about spending time with family and gathering with friends.

IS THERE ONE DISH YOU LOOK FORWARD TO?

One of my favorite holiday dishes is a simple and delicious white-bread crumb stuffing with oysters and spicy sausage. My mom got the recipe from my grandmother -- my father's mother. I've made it before, but it always tastes better when Mom makes it.

WHAT ARE SOME OTHER HOLIDAY TRADITIONS THAT STAND OUT FOR YOU?

We try to pay tribute to our service members and their families. One of the first trees that people see when they walk into the White House is a tree dedicated to the fallen. Gold Star families can pay tribute to their loved ones, and visitors can send thank-you cards to troops and donate service hours in honor of our men and women in uniform. We've always dedicated the Christmas tree in the Blue Room, which has the largest tree in house, to the military families. This year we're going to decorate it with photos of military homecomings. We're also asking military families to share their traditions, and those will be reflected in the ornaments as well.

IS THERE A FAMILY TREE YOU GET TO DECORATE?

One of the things the kids always request -- because we have dozens of trees all over the White House that are decorated by volunteers -- is that they decorate one of the trees themselves. Usually it's the tree in the Yellow Oval room. We'll have hot chocolate, light a fire no matter what the weather is, get out a basket of decorations, and then I'll put on the first holiday music of the season. I have a phenomenal playlist that includes, of course, "A Charlie Brown Christmas," as well as James Taylor, Mariah Carey, Boyz II Men, and Nat King Cole. The kids tease me that they know it's Christmas when I pull out my playlist.

DO THE GIRLS BAKE HOLIDAY COOKIES? ARE THEY ALLOWED INTO THE WHITE HOUSE KITCHEN?

Oh, there's a lot of cookie decorating going on. Sasha is our big cookie maker. It's one of the major activities the girls do when they have friends over. If they are bored and they've run out of things to talk about or to do, I usually get a request: "Can we go down to the kitchen and make cookies?" And of course, the answer is always yes.

HOW THE FIRST FAMILY GIVES BACK

Every year the White House supports Toys For Tots, a foundation started by members of the Marine Corps Reserve that gathers presents for kids in need. "We collect hundreds and hundreds of toys. It's something the staff here gets inspired by," says Mrs. Obama. "I try to remind people to purchase for a broad age group -- people love to buy the little kids toys, but there are also teenagers to think about. Teens love electronic learning games and you can never go wrong with giving them clothes."

Join Our Online Toy Drive

This year Ladies' Home Journal is teaming up with top mom bloggers and kid-friendly companies to organize a virtual toy drive on behalf of Toys For Tots. To learn more, go to LHJ.com/toydrive.

 

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