WASHINGTON — Jill Biden opened the holiday season at the White House on Monday by breaking off a sprig from the official Blue Room tree and giving it — and a big smooch — to her toddler grandson.
"Look how beautiful this is," the first lady said of the 18 1/2-foot (5.6 meter) Fraser fir that was delivered by wagon to her Pennsylvania Avenue doorstep by Clydesdale horses named Ben and Winston.
"It is beautiful. It's magnificent, really," she said.
The first lady later joined President Joe Biden for a visit to the Army's Fort Bragg in North Carolina to celebrate "friendsgiving" with service members and military families.
The two events set off a White House holiday season that is expected to be much more festive this year, as public health officials encourage those vaccinated against COVID-19 to get together in person, instead of begging Americans to stay home, as they've done for holidays past.
The holiday tree was presented by the father-and-son team of Rusty and Beau Estes of Peak Farms in Jefferson, North Carolina — a three-time winner of the National Christmas Tree Association's annual contest. The winner gets to present its official tree to the White House.
Son Hunter Biden, his wife, Melissa, and their toddler, Beau, were among a sizable group of White House aides, guests and others who braved crisp winds to watch the brief ceremony marking the start of the administration's first Christmas in the White House.
The Fraser fir will be decorated in the coming days and displayed in the Blue Room, a tradition that dates back to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, after a chandelier is removed so it can be tethered to the ceiling for safety. White House grounds superintendent Dale Haney went to the farm in October to pick out a tree. Peak Farms also supplied the official White House tree in 2008 and 2012.
The White House Christmas decorations will be revealed on the Monday after Thanksgiving, the first lady said.
Jill Biden was joined by a D.C. Army National Guard family to honor the National Guard's role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, her office said. She has been using her new role to help highlight and rally support for military families from across the country through an initiative named Joining Forces.
At Fort Bragg, the meal was held in a large hanger replete with pumpkin and pine cone centerpieces for about 250 servicemembers and families. Jill Biden spoke first, stepping out from behind a table to walk the room, talking to families about their late son, Beau, who served in the Delaware National Guard, and how she understood how hard it was to be away during holidays. She talked about how proud she was of the troops before introducing the president, who echoed her praise.
"You do so much, your families do so much," President Biden said. "You're the finest military the world has ever seen … and I'm so damn proud to be associated with you."
After a quick prayer from the chaplain, the Bidens walked behind the serving tables, donned gloves and aprons and started dishing out the meal to waiting troops. Jill Biden scooped mashed potatoes, the president the stuffing. The troops were handed chocolate chip cookies with the presidential seal, and the long table was full of food including chocolate cakes.
On Tuesday, the Bidens plan to participate in a to-be-announced local service project before resuming their family tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket. Biden put tradition on hold last fall over COVID-19 concerns and hunkered down over Thanksgiving dinner in Delaware with just his wife, their daughter and their son-in-law.
"Last Thanksgiving, for the first time, it was just the four of us," Biden said earlier this month as he commented on the nation's progress against the coronavirus.
Jaffe reported from Fort Bragg, N.C. Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.