Fox News Today: Paul Batura: 300-year-old White House decoration offers this inspiring message

Fox News Today: Paul Batura: 300-year-old White House decoration offers this inspiring message

Fox News Today:

The East Room of the White House is a space synonymous with history and headlines ranging from the somber (presidential wakes) and serious (press conferences and bill signings) to the festive and elegant (state dinners and other entertaining).

First used by Abigail Adams to dry laundry and later house Union troops during the Civil War, the nearly 3,000-foot state room sparkles, and never more so than at Christmas.

I had the privilege of visiting the White House and spending time in the East Room this past week. It wasn’t the first time I had toured the nation’s house, but I had never been there at Christmas and the scene would almost put a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie set to shame.

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The first thing you notice all throughout the executive mansion this month are the lights – thousands upon thousands of twinkling luminaries, the majority affixed to perfectly decorated evergreen trees, many of which are laden with artificial snow.

Decorating the White House for the holidays has long been the prerogative of the First Lady, and this year’s offering mirrors the classic, dignified style of Melania Trump.

But for all the lights and evergreen trees, all the red bows and perfectly positioned Yuletide boughs – the indisputable centerpiece of the Christmas display sits quietly in the center of the back wall of the East Room.

Bordered by two evergreen trees is a 300-year-old crèche, a carved wood and terra cotta creation from Naples, Italy.

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The colorful nativity set was first loaned to the White House during the Kennedy administration by Jane Engelhard, the widow of husband Charles, an American businessman who enjoyed great success in international mining and metals.

The crèche became the official property of the White House in 1967 during the Johnson administration when the family announced the loan had become a gift. It’s been displayed annually ever since.

A Secret Service agent stood guard by the figurines this past Monday. Bill first began at the executive mansion during President Nixon’s tenure. An Army Special Forces soldier who saw combat in Vietnam prior to serving at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the white-haired veteran talks lovingly about the priceless 22-piece set.

Ducking inside the dry stable and protected from the howling, arctic wind, the air suddenly grew quiet and I could hear the crunch of the straw under my feet. I gently placed Jesus in the wooden trough.

“It’s even older than this building,” he reminded me. “The Engelhard family searched for years for it and donated additional pieces in 1978. It’s hand-carved and one of a kind.”   Crèches and nativity sets make the news each year and often for controversial reasons.

Last week, a Methodist church in California tried to score political points and stir debate by depicting Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus as refugees. They locked the figurines up in separate cages on the parish property.

Never mind that Jesus’ parents weren’t refugees at all but rather weary travelers required by law to register in Bethlehem for the Roman government’s census.

Like many people, manger scenes hold a special place in my heart.

As a janitor at our church in high school, I had the privilege of helping my boss Phil Lynch build and decorate St. Christopher’s life-size front-lawn stable each December. We’d lug the brown wooden panels up from the basement, lay in straw and staple evergreen boughs to the roof. We always affixed a blue light inside.

All the figurines were positioned weeks before Christmas but our pastor didn’t allow us to lay the baby Jesus in the crèche until twilight on Dec. 24, a tradition I enjoyed.

One frigidly cold year, I found myself bundling up the small clay figurine and trudging through the snow out on the front lawn of the church. The area was awash in the glow of the white lights of the evergreen trees.

Ducking inside the dry stable and protected from the howling, arctic wind, the air suddenly grew quiet and I could hear the crunch of the straw under my feet. I gently placed Jesus in the wooden trough.

I didn’t hear voices or angels singing but my heart felt full at that moment. It gave me a new appreciation for the melodic words many of us sing from memory each year: “Away in a manger, No crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head. The stars in the sky looked down where He lay, the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.”

Antagonists of religious freedom like to challenge the legality of crèche displays on government property. Vandals have also been known to steal and desecrate them – but drive through most towns today and you’ll see one – or two – or even more.

Despite cultural battles, crèches – like Christmas itself – carry on – and for that reason, I quietly cheer. That’s because from the White House to my house and in millions of homes the world over, manger scenes remind us that despite all the commercial trappings of twinkling lights, music, gifts and food – a helpless and innocent baby remains, as always, the true star of the Christmas story.

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