Visit Bucks kicks off holidays with help of former White House decorator

Washington Crossing native Coleen Christian Burke has transformed the Visitor Center into a winter wonderland

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Picture perfect: After decorating the White House in 2008 and 2014 under first ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, Washington Crossing native Coleen Christian Burke is putting her skills to good use in her own backyard, partnering with Visit Bucks County to help the tourism promotion agency kick off the holidays. Samantha Bambino / Times Photo

All things Christmas, all the time. This is the mantra of Washington Crossing native Coleen Christian Burke, who in 2014, began decorating well before Halloween…and Memorial Day. She started in February. But when you’re tasked with bringing to life nearly 60 trees, all at least 15-feet-tall, ample time is necessary. Especially when it’s for the home of former first lady Michelle Obama.

This was the second time Burke was invited to unleash her creative talents on the White House, transforming it into a holiday paradise. Her first visit was in 2008 when Laura Bush welcomed her to be part of the volunteer decorating team. It took nearly five years of Burke writing letters and submitting her name, but her diligence paid off.

“I often joke that I campaigned longer than President Obama did to get there,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t believe it was true.”

But it was. Bush worked side-by-side with Burke and the rest of the team, sharing tips and tricks on how to get the snow and ornaments just right. Though Burke had helped her mother decorate their Bucks County home since childhood, she acquired an abundance of knowledge from both first ladies.

Now, Burke is putting her skills to good use in her own backyard. This season, she has partnered for the first time with Visit Bucks County to help the tourism promotion agency kick off the holidays.

On Thursday, Nov. 15, at the Visitor Center in Bensalem, Burke’s Holiday Treesdisplay was unveiled to the public, along with the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus. Boasting 20 intricately-designed trees, each celebrating a popular local attraction, the installation will be featured through Jan. 2.

Unlike the multi-month process of decorating the White House, Holiday Treescame together in less than a week. Despite the shortened time frame, the display is flawlessly executed with the theme of “Bucks County” woven throughout.

“What I had learned from the first ladies, especially Jackie Kennedy, you have to have a theme and then everything can fall under that theme,” Burke said.

After VBC identified the attractions it wanted to spotlight, Burke got to work in designing trees that accurately depict the stories of Sesame Place, New Hope & Ivyland Railroad, Peddler’s Village and more. Though each tells a unique tale, all showcase a “snowy Christmas” appearance, something Burke said the first ladies always envisioned. To create the illusion of snow, the trees were wrapped with feather boas, which serve as a unifying factor. The trees range from seven to 12 feet and are adorned with decorations that hail from several sources — inventory previously acquired by VBC, donations from the various attractions, and handcrafted pieces by a team of 40 dedicated volunteers.

According to Burke, these volunteers were instrumental in getting Holiday Trees completed on time. A large amount of support came from members of the YMCA’s veterans program, a group Burke holds near and dear to her heart. When her father returned from serving in Vietnam, he spent seven years in the hospital due to severe injuries.

“One of the things he did as part of his therapy and rehabilitation was he painted to try and regain the use of his arm,” she said.

Burke’s father painted a beautiful manger scene, which is proudly displayed at Holiday Trees.

“When my dad came home from Vietnam, veterans weren’t really welcomed back, and I think it’s a different time now,” she said. “So to have the veterans help us decorate, and then being able to honor my dad a little bit by having his manger here, that’s special to me.”

In the lobby of the Visitor Center, another piece of Burke’s life is introduced — her first lady-inspired ornaments. Strategically placed around the tree are pieces from the Coleen Christian Burke First Ladies Collection by Fitz and Floyd, which include a porcelain replica of Nancy Reagan’s infamous gingerbread house and Betty Ford’s DIY crafts. For Burke, her line of decorations intertwine history and design, one of her favorite passions.

“When you decorate using the lens of history, it’s really about storytelling. You can tell the stories to each other, and then tell them to your kids and your grandkids,” she said. “It just takes the holidays to a different level.”

In addition to being an ornament entrepreneur, Burke is the author of Christmas with the First Ladies: The White House Decorating Tradition from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama. The idea for the book sparked after her 2008 encounter with Bush. Did the other first ladies care about decorating as much as she did? What were their styles? After doing some research, Burke acquired dozens of pictures taken by presidential photographers, who captured their surprisingly normal holiday traditions.

“I couldn’t believe that this was Jackie’s tree because she’s our icon of style and she did such an amazing job at the White House. I just thought it was funny that her own tree kind of looked like a mess,” Burke said. “But what I found for every first lady was that they all really put their own imprint on Christmas and I thought that was kind of magical.”

In addition to these rare photos, Christmas with the First Ladies features their special family recipes for cocktails, cookies and more.

“There’s public celebrations, but there should always be a private connection for everybody,” Burke said. “And I think that’s what makes the holidays so memorable.” ••

Holiday Trees will be open at the Bucks County Visitor Center, 3207 Street Road, Bensalem, seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Saturday hours until 8 p.m. on Nov. 24 and Dec. 1, 8 and 15. Coupons for attractions are available. For information, go to VisitBucksCounty.com/HolidayTrees orVisitBucksCounty.com/Holidays.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com