When I was a child, we decorated our family tree on Christmas Eve. With only one to decorate, we could afford to wait until the last minute. So, it was a surprise when the Chief Usher and the Social Secretary came to me shortly after my husband's first inauguration to give me the news that it was time to begin planning for Christmas.
Christmas in the White House is magical. There are dozens of trees, dozens of parties and thousands of guests to prepare for. Every detail is planned and executed with the help of not only the White House staff, but also volunteers from all over the country.
Each First Family adds its unique mark to the holiday traditions — from the choice of a theme and a Christmas card, to the decision our family made to light a menorah during Hanukkah, and host a reception at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Our own family celebration has changed over the last eight years, especially with the joy of having two young nephews around. But most of our family traditions have remained intact. We open our gifts on Christmas morning, and it doesn't take too long for our home to look like so many others around the country. By midday, all that is left of Christmas are our memories and gifts, scraps of wrapping paper and bows, the laughter and excitement of family members, and our gratitude for the many blessings we have been given.
This year, especially, as we prepare to move, we are even more mindful of the special wonder of celebrating Christmas at the White House. And, triggered by the photographs in my new book, "An Invitation to the White House: At Home with History," we find ourselves reminiscing about the remarkable events that have taken place since January of 1993, when we first moved in.
We have seen many of life's changes, both good and bad. We weathered investigations and impeachment. We lost Bill's mother and my father, as well as close friends and advisers such as Ron Brown, Vince Foster and Chuck Ruff. We watched our daughter grow from a teenager into a young woman, and welcomed Tyler and Zachary, our two new nephews, to the family. And we marked a new century and millennium.
We hosted historic events, including the celebration of the 50th anniversary of NATO in 1999, an event that saw the largest gathering of foreign heads of state ever to assemble at the White House, and the South Lawn handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. This week, even as we prepare to leave, the President is working to bring Mideast leaders together for yet one more peace summit.
On Nov. 1, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the White House. Imagine the wear and tear that comes with welcoming as many as 30,000 guests a week, and the care it requires to protect and preserve the 132 rooms and priceless artifacts and furnishings. But we know, just as every First Family has before us, that we are stewards, not owners of the People's House, and that we have the responsibility to pass it on — in better shape than we found it — to future generations.
Although there were many areas of the mansion that needed work when we arrived, the Blue Room, the State Dining Room and the Cross Hall required the most attention. Working with a group of historians, curators and designers from the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, we made decisions based not only on the history of the rooms, but also on how they are used today.
I hadn't been living here very long before I knew I wanted to write a book about our years here. Since the day we moved in, Bill and I were determined to open the White House to as many people as possible, and I knew that a book offered perhaps the next best thing to a visit for those who might never be able to come in person.
The title, "An Invitation to the White House: At Home with History," conveys a great deal about the way I've approached my years here. While a lovely and inviting venue for entertaining, the White House is also the center of our nation's political life, and a living museum of America's history.
As First Lady, I have worked hard, whether planning a social event, a policy announcement, a bill signing or a state arrival, to showcase the best of America — from food and furnishings, to guests and entertainment. At every turn, I have been supported by a top-rate staff, eager to make my family — and America's family — feel at home in what is, after all, the People's House.
Mrs. Clinton's new book is called "An Invitation to the White House: At Home with History." All author proceeds have been assigned to the White House Historical Association. A portion of the publisher's profits will be donated to the National Park Foundation. To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.