Arts / Museums

Laura Bush Opens Up on Christmas With the Grandkids, White House Holidays and Her Outdoors Legacy

Why the Former First Lady Always Championed National Parks

BY // 12.23.19

If there is one thing to know and respect about former first lady Laura Bush, it is her unwavering commitment and passion for the outdoors. 

In 2011, she founded the nonprofit, Texan by Nature, as a way to bridge the gap between businesses and conservation leaders in an effort to forge prosperity both from a conservation and economic standpoint. 

Five year later, in 2016, she and her daughter Jenna Bush Hager co-authored the children’s book Our Great Big Backyard, which tells the tale of a young girl named Jane who comes to love our country’s national parks, while on a summer road trip with her family. 

And, should you get a chance to chat with Mrs. Bush personally, she won’t hesitate to tell you how fond she is of her annual hiking trips, an excursion she and her childhood friends make each year to a different national park. 

Now, Laura Bush is at it again, this time reiterating her passion for our country — in particular her dedication to America’s national parks and historic monuments — by way of the recent holiday exhibition at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. 

Titled “Holiday in the National Parks: Christmas in the White House 2007,” the exhibition takes a look 12 years back to when the White House Christmas decor was dedicated to the country’s national parks and historic places. 

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Much like the Bush Center, the exhibition is highly engaging and interactive, mixing everything from replicas of the Alamo, Frederic Douglass House, Mount Rushmore and the Spanish Missions with display cases of fashions worn by the first lady during holiday events and visits to various national parks while her husband, President George W. Bush, was in office. 

Of course, the standout moment comes immediately upon entrance: A replica of the Christmas tree that stood famously in the White House’s Blue Room. It is covered in gold stars and beaded garland and adorned with 347 large glass ornaments. 

Each holiday orb was sent to a representative of each national park and registered historic site in the country — and returned to the White House hand-painted and decorated by a local artisan with symbols depicting that site. 

Upon my recent visit, a very lovely museum attendant was at the ready with facts about each ornament. As he appeared a wealth of information, I decided we should play a bit of a pop-quiz game: I pointed at an ornament and the kind gent would tell me the historic site or national park it represented, along with a fun fact about the place itself. 

Earlier this month, just before the exhibition opened to the public, I had the pleasure of catching up with Mrs. Bush to chat all things national parks, conservation — and the Bush family’s upcoming holiday plans.

Where did the idea for Christmas decor inspired by national parks originate? 

Every year — early, like in February — the White House florist, Nancy Clarke, would come to me and say, “What is it going to be this year?” They work on [the decorations] all year long. This year — the year that we’re showing [at the Bush Center] — are the decorations from 2007. It was Christmas at the National Parks. 

Do you have fond family memories visiting the national parks? 

I’ve hiked for years in the national parks with the women I grew up with in Midland, Texas. The Grand Canyon was the first one we did. The national parks seemed like a really perfect thing for Christmas. 

One year, my friends and I all invited our daughters to join us. I took Jenna [Bush Hager], where you hike from point to point and camp on the Colorado river. 

Henry [Hager] asked Jenna [Bush Hager] to marry him at Acadia National Park in Maine. It’s the first place you can see the sun rise in the continental U.S. Of course, like most Texans, we’ve all been to The Alamo. 

Do you have a favorite national park? 

I especially like the ones that are beautiful natural landscapes — ones that we’ve protected. In the United States, we’re very lucky. The national parks are called “America’s Best Idea,” because we protected them by turning them into national parks and making them accessible. 

The most beautiful one is Yosemite, where you can hike from camp to camp. It’s a very short season — but it’s one of the most magnificent ones. When we went to Yosemite, it was the first year George was president in 2001, we were much younger. . . Not sure I could do it now.   

What do you hope visitors take away from the exhibition at the Bush Center?

Of course, my hope is that they take away what I feel, which is how fortunate we are in this country. We have a magnificent country, with a magnificent landscape. I would hope people not only go see the national parks and think about them — but also work to protect them. That’s what I’ve done with Texan by Nature — to protect our natural sites. Businesses can do it, too, it doesn’t just have to be environmentalists. 

Any big plans for Christmas? 

We’ll be at our ranch for Christmas. The whole family will come. They went to the inlaws for Thanksgiving. This will be our first Christmas with baby Hal. And it will be really fun with Mila and Poppy, who are six and really at the age of believing in Santa. 

“Holiday in the National Parks: Christmas in the White House 2007,” is on view at the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University, through January 5, 2020.

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