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Former first children reveal highs, lows of holidays at White House

An NBC special that takes a historical perspective on Christmas at the White House also provides an unusual feat: the gathering of ten presidential families who celebrated the holidays inside the “People’s House.”

“A White House Christmas: First Families Remember,” which aired Thursday night, recounts holiday stories from former first ladies and their children, including a rare interview with Amy Carter.

The show offers a unique gathering of individuals who often get lumped into a single category by the general public, explains Jenna Bush Hager, the daughter of former President George W. Bush.

“I don’t think any of us would say, ‘Hi, I’m a first daughter.’ That’s not how we think of ourselves,” said Hager, who served as executive producer of the piece.

“We define ourselves as being of our careers, and our relationships and our children. But we are part of this club who’s lived history, so it’s amazing to hear everybody’s perspective around something as non-political as the holidays.”

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The Christmas special provides an insider’s peek into the White House, including darker moments such as the period following the death of President John F. Kennedy.

“Everywhere you went downstairs and all the public rooms, it was all draped in black,” recalls Luci Baines Johnson, whose father ascended to the presidency after Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. “And there was a sense of respect for the unspeakable horror that our country had gone through.”

Following a 30-day mourning period, President Johnson lit the National Christmas tree on the Ellipse outside the White House.

“All of a sudden, the black was gone, and the tree was up, and there was a sense there would be hope for tomorrow,” Baines Johnson said.

The National Christmas tree lighting ceremony also created lasting memories for other first families.

“It was a must-do event. It was on everybody’s schedule,” said Secretary of State and former first lady Hillary Clinton, who was interviewed sitting next to her daughter.

Chelsea Clinton recalled her first time getting to hit the switch that illuminated the National Christmas tree.

“I remember thinking it might be anticlimactic to just hit a button. I don’t know what I thought, but it was the furthest from anticlimactic. I mean, to watch the tree just burst into light, and to gasp along with the thousands of people that are watching it on the mall,” she said. “It was a magical moment.”

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Other moments from the show included the host, Meredith Vieira, sneaking a taste of this year’s White House gingerbread house.

The tradition of the edible homes began in 1969 with Pat Nixon, whose daughters remember how their father would chip off a tiny morsel from the back of the home where no one would notice.

Tricia Nixon Cox called the unveiling of the White House gingerbread homes a significant part of the season.

“That was a high point because who doesn’t feel young at heart in the presence of a charming old fashioned gingerbread house? “ she said.

Roughly 100 volunteers help decorate the 13 rooms and 54 live trees spread throughout the first floor of the White House, which is expected to get more 90,000 visitors during the holiday season.

This year’s theme, Joy to All, features special tribute to military families, as well as to Christmases past.

“We’re bringing back some of the favorite ornaments of some of our most recent first ladies, just to remember that this house never belongs to just one family,” said current first lady Michelle Obama, who jokingly called herself “hostess in chief.” “The history of this house is the culmination of families that have touched this place and have made their mark on this season.”

The show’s host, Meredith Vieira, sneaks a taste of this year’s White House gingerbread house. She also describes the work of the roughly 100 volunteers who help decorate the 13 rooms and several dozen trees spread throughout the first floor.

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Hager said Christmas has always provided a peaceful, unifying influence to the White House, regardless of the political party in power at the time.

“It’s pretty amazing. It's a time when our country all comes together,” she said.

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