A Home for the Holidays

Getting the White House ready for Christmas begins mid-summer, with wrangling over the decorating theme for the year. By December the White House social secretary is whirling through 18 hour days that won’t don’t let up until the staff party a few days before the holiday.

For Ann Stock, who filled that role for nearly five years during the Clinton administration, those times were the wildest. One year she and Hillary Clinton sent out a cross-country call to 1500 needle pointers and cross-stitchers, asking them to donate an ornament for the house trees, of which there are many.


“We were stunned by the response,” says Stock. Expecting maybe five hundred, 3500 arrived. It took the entire month of November to unpack, photograph, catalog—and chart them. The staff wanted the needlers to be able to find their creations if they came for a visit.

Stock knows about needlepoint ornaments. Over the years the current Vice President for Institutional Affairs at the Kennedy Center has stitched “50 or 60 of them, I’ve never counted,” she says.

Over the years the current Vice President for Institutional Affairs at the Kennedy Center has stitched “50 or 60 of them, I’ve never counted,” she says.

Tucked away in a living room closet of her home in Old Town Alexandria are boxes and shopping bags filled with layers of ornaments nestled in yam colored tissue. There are nutcrackers, Santa’s, characters from Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz, little mice, and a red Converse sneaker, made for son Chase.

Chase, who is now 27 and studying for a master’s degree at the Wharton School, was a tot when she started stitching. “I must have been close to crazy when he was very little,” she laughs. In addition to stockings for the family, “I needle pointed Christmas stockings for his bunny and Paddington Bear and his teddy—that’s Ted E. Bear,” she added, making sure we got the bear’s name right.

In the weeks before Christmas she juggles her own holiday decorating with preparations for the annual Kennedy Center Honors Gala. “We have Christmas all over the place in this house,” she says.

It rolls out with military precision, “Organization is my hallmark,” she grins, sapphire eyes twinkling. The ornaments are unpacked along with the holiday china and tea set, the stair railings are wrapped, the stockings are hung, and her husband Stuart, an attorney with Covington and Burling, puts up the big Frasier fir in the library.

The library is where the family gathers on Christmas morning. This room, and most of the ground floor, was once the law offices of Bushrod Washington, the first president’s nephew. Built in 1787, the family quarters occupied the second and third floors. .

Restored before the Stocks bought it, over twenty years ago (“We remodeled the first two houses we lived in and swore we’d never remodel again,” she says), the house is largely unchanged from Bushrod’s day. Sadly, the fireplaces that once warmed nearly every room were blocked to bring in central air and heat. Sad, she agrees, “But I’ll take the central heating and air.”

Victorian era modifications included the addition of plumbing, a neat galley kitchen, and an adjacent china closet that was large enough to be turned into a cozy den. Originally, the kitchen was not connected to the house, Stock says. “In these old houses they would often burn down.”

The kitchen is handsome with cherry cabinets and Corian counters, but tight. “If you’re entertaining a lot of people, it’s teeny,” she says. Like at the holidays when the house is filled guests.

Too busy to give, or even go to many parties, all of Stock’s energies go into making Christmas Eve and Christmas Day—exactly the same as every other Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

“We’ve always had Christmas dinner here, always,” she says. And for 24 years (with one exception) it hasn’t varied. That’s the way Chase wants it, and you just don’t mess with the memories of kids—particularly when they seem old enough not to care. That’s when they care the most.

So, she says, “We always have Christmas Eve dinner with Scott, Chase’s best friend from the time he was three, and his parents and my mom when she’s here and Stuart’s parents when they were alive, and always open one present for the kids…even though they’re 27.”

Then there’s “roast beef, double stuffed potatoes, stewed tomatoes, and gooshy parker house rolls,” she reels off. Scott’s mother Martha always contributes a taco dip that that boys love and picks up peppermint ice cream and chocolate sauce at What’s the Scoop? on King Street.

On Christmas Day the hoards descend, as many as twenty when family is in town, but always a core group of fourteen, including five kids that can’t recall a Christmas day apart. So jealous are they of their holiday tradition that they vote to decide if boy friends and girlfriends can be included. So far, none have.

Adults get the big dining room table; the young people are set up in the library. “I’m thinking this year I’ll break up the tables,” she says. “Have the kid’s table and the adult table and put little cards in a bowl and when people come in have them choose…” she scowls slightly and adds, “This will cause major controversy.”

Like the year her good friend White House correspondent Rita Braver and her husband Bob Barnett insisted on making dinner at their house. When a sudden story deadline interfered, they all ate a catered meal at 7 p.m. While Chase conceded that the meal was tasty, the bottom line was, Stock recalls: “It was not what we always have.”

So now, it is as always. “You may not deviate from this meal,” she laughs. “There’s turkey, mashed potatoes, candied yams, cornbread stuffing with apples and raisins marinated in bourbon with pecans, my grandma Grace’s cranberry sauce, parker house rolls, gravy, and… what else?” she pauses. “Oh! I’m forgetting, green beans with ham!
Appetizers come with Rita and Bob, and Jane Weber brings three desserts. Kristen, one of the kids, has lately become a little intimidating, what with her job at Martha Stewart Living. “I told her she can’t criticize, she can help,” says Stock. Last year she got to mash the potatoes.

The kids have gotten older, gone to college, had romances, returned to school, started careers, and they all keep coming back for Christmas. “None of them has ever missed it,” she says. “At some point in time one of them is going to get married and go somewhere else …” she trails off.

But not yet. No, not yet.

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