On Monday and Wednesday this week, Donald Trump will leave the Oval Office in the West Wing in the late afternoon and walk eastward to the White House residence, where he will meet Melania Trump. Together, they will head downstairs at 5:15 to the Grand Foyer, a gilded hall directly past the main entrance, where they will be greeted by 600 people. Melania at his side, he will wave and smile at his guests, shake their hands, pose for photos, and engage in small talk. She will say “Merry Christmas” and he will deliver unscripted remarks. He will wave and smile and shake hands and pose and engage in small talk some more. After about two-and-a-half hours, they will ascend the stairs and return to the residence. Just before 8:30, the whole ordeal will start again. Smile, wave, pose, shake hands, make small talk. “Merry Christmas!” Unscripted remarks. Smile, wave, pose, shake hands, make small talk.
By the 26th, he will have attended 21 Christmas parties, clocking in at more than 52 hours of festivities in total, or about 10 percent of his waking hours this month.
This is the life of a modern president of the United States in the month of December — and Donald Trump hates every minute of it. While he is known to enjoy hosting large social events and rallies, current and former White House staffers say he regards presidential Christmas parties with a special loathing and goes out of his way to escape early. Making Christmas great again may have been a pillar of his presidential campaign — “We’re going to start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again,” he often promised — but the war on Christmas is now raging inside of him.
One person close to the White House told me, “It makes perfect sense” that Trump hates the entire production surrounding Christmas, “because it’s not about him!” This person added, “If it were about him, he’d love it. Christmas is not about him.”
“It’s just a lot,” a senior White House official told me. “They’re hosting all these people, half of whom they don’t know,” the official said. “He just gets impatient. He likes to go go go. Sitting through things, he gets restless.”
For his first Christmas as president, the White House parties featured a procedure for guests to enter a line and take a photo with Donald and Melania, an excruciating and monotonous ritual endured by most modern presidents since the early 1960s. It can, and often does, go on for hours. But Trump seems to have less patience for it than his predecessors. At one party, Trump grew so annoyed that he began complaining openly to one of his aides. “He said, ‘I’m supposed to be the president, but now all I do is stand there and take pictures all day. There’s no telling what’s going on in the world right now. I’d never know,’” the former aide told me, recalling the conversation.
While shaking hands with guests and standing for photos at another party last year, Trump spotted Mike Pence in the crowd. According to a second White House official, he forced the vice-president to take his place. “He and Melania left and subbed in the vice-president for the photo line,” the second official said.
To keep Trump’s Christmas spirit intact this year, few parties besides those held for the Secret Service and law enforcement feature a formal photo line. “He definitely gets impatient with the photo taking because that is literally, at times, two hours of standing there and taking pictures,” the senior White House official told me. “And because he is the ultimate host, he talks between clicks.”
“He was frustrated last year. I think anybody would be,” the senior official said. “This year he’s been fine and I think it’s because last year so many of the parties [had] photos, so this year we have way fewer photo lines … This year has been much, much better. Much better, in terms of his being fine with things and in a much better mood … He’s said a couple of times that this year is way better than last year.”
Christmastime was not always a season of forced merriment for the president. The first White House Christmas party was held in 1800 by President John Adams and his wife Abigail, according to the White House Historical Association, but it wasn’t until the administration of President John F. Kennedy, well after American concerns about paganism had given way to the commercial embrace of the holiday and all of its symbols, that celebrating became a matter of First Family tradition. President Ronald Reagan even dressed up as Santa Claus in 1983.
But Trump is not the first president to bristle at the hostile, tinsel-draped takeover of his schedule. In 2012, Vanity Fair published a bizarre item in which the writer Todd S. Purdum criticized Obama for not shaking as many hands or posing for as many photos as his predecessors did during the holidays. Obama, Purdum wrote, mostly posed for photos at the parties for the media and members of Congress. As an example of someone Obama should have tried to emulate, Purdum shared a horrifying story about Abraham Lincoln holding, “near-constant public receptions during the depth of the Civil War (including one on the night his young son, Willie, lay dying upstairs).”
“It seems lame to complain about having to go to parties in the White House, so I won’t, but we were busy generally and particularly at that time of year,” Dan Pfeiffer, who served as a senior adviser to Obama, told me. “There were several years in a row where we were dealing with some congressionally generated crisis at the exact moment we had to go say ‘Hi’ to lots of people either at night or in the afternoon.” He said he thought the decision to cut down on photo-taking was just practical. “Having a photo line extends the time of the event and limits the number of people you can invite,” he said.
Anecdotally, what Pfeiffer said stuck out most about Christmas at the White House was a certain kind of guest. “The oddest parts of the events were when people who thought Obama was the anti-Christ — like Sean Hannity and Darrell Issa — would show up to eat some Bo-shaped cookies and get a picture with the president.”
Things are different now. This year, there is no party for members of the press, for instance (and good riddance). But the oddest part of Trump’s Christmas events may be Trump himself.
“I wouldn’t characterize it like he’s a grumpy Grinch. I would characterize it that they are given a lot to do,” the senior White House official said, adding that the president has never complained about hosting or taking photos with members of law enforcement or Secret Service agents.
The second White House official said that the parties are better without the line for pictures, anyway, and surely nobody could blame a person for preferring not to spend several hours greeting a procession of mostly strangers: “He’s kind of a germaphobe, so I heard that was a concern, too.”