January 24, 2021

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Melania Trump Christmas decorations told us everything we needed to know about the first lady

And so here we are, following the first lady down colonnades and breezeways as she encounters rows of looming, florally festooned evergreens in the manner of someone who has never seen a tree.

The decor contains many roses, white lights and hanging ornaments — airplanes, speedboats — which Melania looks up at and beholds in wonder. There is a painting of a reindeer and another one of a fox; there is an ornament of an American flag and another one reading “Be Best,” referencing the first lady’s launch-failure of a signature initiative. There is a banner celebrating the 19th Amendment, which now comes across as fourth-dimensional trolling given that the majority of American women voters used their ballots to eject Melania’s husband from the White House.

Over the past four years Melania’s off-kilter Christmas decorations have become a reliable source of controversy. This began with her first holiday in 2017, when she unveiled a maze of icy, creepy branches that appeared to be a joint production created by the set decorator from “The Haunting of Hill House” and the Babadook. In 2018, she showcased giant blood-red trees onto which the Internet promptly Photoshopped white bonnets to turn them into extras from “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Last year’s decor, in a color palette of attractive creams, was considerably less terrifying, but it still contained the contradictory elements that have made each year perplexing.

Melania’s Christmas videos contain ornaments ostensibly made by children (extremely artistic children), but there is no evidence of actual children: no footage of visiting school groups, no sloppy handmade gingerbread, no festive soundtrack of recognizable child-friendly Christmas carols. The videos contain messages that the White House represents America’s “home,” but it’s depicted as the kind of a place where they give you a pair of slip-on hospital booties as soon as you walk in the door.

In a season meant to celebrate family, friends, community and warmth, Melania always appears alone and very, very cold.

The fans who love Melania’s Christmas decor — and they are legion, and they are loud — will insist they love it because it’s “elegant”; that Melania has returned “elegance” to the White House.

And maybe this is the disconnect: There are those who feel the White House should be a place of inclusion, a place where you hang up the weird calamari ornament just because Rhode Island made it, and Rhode Island is a part of the country, too. And there are those who feel the White House should be a symbolic showplace, whose inhabitants’ lives are untouched and unbothered by whatever is going on outside of its walls. Melania is not there to welcome you, she is there for you to admire her. When she delivers words, they will be stilted but she will look fantastic doing it.

But there were darker undercurrents to the Melania Christmas debate, too: the defenders of Melania have always insisted on comparing her to her predecessor, Michelle Obama, and it became hard to believe that “elegant” was a code word for anything other than “White.” Melania is “elegant” because she represented a very specific kind of White femininity: silent, lovely, delicately fingering the ornaments that her staff had assembled.

Surely, the pretense of elegance had fallen away by the time an audio recording was leaked in October. “Who gives a f— about Christmas stuff and decoration?” the first lady complained to a confidante on the phone. “But I need to do it, right?”

The end of Donald Trump’s presidency means the end of a lot of things, but one I’m personally grateful for is that we can all finally stop reading (or writing) stories about Melania. We can stop speculating on whether she actually speaks five languages, on what she meant by “I really don’t care, do u?” We don’t have to read into her slappy hand movements, delivered when her husband reaches for her arm; we don’t have to hear about her alleged pre-nup negotiations or what bed she sleeps in or doesn’t.

In the end, the clearest sense of this woman’s personality that we were ever going to get was the version dispensed in minute-long clips at the beginning of every December.

Here was a woman, wandering through an empty mansion, selling us on a version of Christmas and America that you’d swear she didn’t understand herself.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.

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