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The secretary of Christmas

In 1985, Mary Seeley's husband bought a presidential Christmas card. That put her on the path to becoming the authority on White House holidays.

Published December 21, 2005

TAMPA - The first thing some Christians noticed when they opened President Bush's 2005 Christmas card was the omission of the word "Christmas."

When Mary Evans Seeley of Tampa saw it, something else caught her eye: three little black house pets frolicking on the White House lawn.

Two presidential Scottish terriers and the official White House feline making an appearance on the greeting card is a historic occasion, Seeley said, far more unusual than a president's wish for a happy "holiday season."

A Tampa resident for 35 years, Seeley has spent almost two decades immersed in the history of how the nation's top office has celebrated Christmas. This 63-year-old mother of four has been to every presidential library, interviewed four first ladies and formed a close relationship with the White House curator in an effort to set the story straight.

The last time a president used Christmas in his official holiday greeting was 13 years ago, Seeley said. Bush's card leaving out the word is nothing new.

But the last time a Bush thought about putting a pet on a Christmas card, the plan got nixed. Former President George Bush and his wife, Barbara, scrapped an illustration that featured their springer spaniel, Millie, sprawled out on the blue rug in the Oval Office.

"George felt, and I did too, that when you send greetings to kings and queens, you don't need the dog in the picture," Mrs. Bush told Seeley in an interview for her book, Seasons Greetings from the White House.

Two administrations later, the family dogs are having their day. "In 82 years, every president has honored Christmas," Seeley said as she sat in the living room of her north Tampa home last week. "Christmas was honored. Christmas was respected. Christmas was not disregarded, whether war or peace time, whatever."

She also can tell you all about the history of the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, which had its beginnings with President Calvin Coolidge in 1923. He opened the White House lawn to as many as 10,000 carolers with flashlights and copies of the Evening Star, which printed Christmas songs for the event.

Seeley said she marvels over the Eisenhowers and their love of Christmas. Ike and Mamie Eisenhower ordered 38 different cards over their eight years in office - more than any president before or since. The president even painted several of the covers and gave his paintings of Lincoln and Washington as gifts to his staff.

Seeley credits the enthusiasm to Mrs. Eisenhower's social nature: "She liked to send cards to her staff all through the year. But then on Christmas, oh, my!"

Not that Seeley's household is so different.

Six Christmas trees of various sizes grace the living room. Tiny angels dangle from a chandelier. Poinsettias line the fireplace mantle. A 2-foot gold eagle spreads its wings on a table facing the front door. Beneath the table, Mary, Joseph and the wise men gaze at a baby in a manger.

There is little in this 5,900-square-foot home that isn't a reminder of Christmas, God or country.

Married 44 years, Mary and Ronald Seeley have long had a passion for the celebration of a baby king born in a humble setting. They have opened their home to family and friends, holding Bible studies and sharing the "real meaning of Christmas."

"Christmas is always coming," Mary Seeley said.

Their presidential Christmas journey began on a May day in 1985 when Ronald Seeley, a Tampa-based ophthalmologist, was on a business trip in Washington D.C.

The 67-year-old, who has been a collector of many things since childhood, wandered into a Connecticut Avenue political memorabilia shop in search of something the rest of the world may have missed. He asked the shopkeeper if he had anything involving Christmas.

The man offered a gift print of President George Washington that President Richard Nixon gave his staff at Christmas 1969. Seeley bought it, but walked back to his hotel with hundreds of questions. How many existed? Had presidents always given signed prints and Christmas cards? What other traditions were there?

Over next several years, the Seeleys began collecting White House Christmas artifacts. In 1989, Seeley called White House curator Rex Scouten about the collection. Before Mary Seeley knew it, her husband had an invitation to the White House.

Until then, she had been paying only slight attention to what her husband was doing with the cards. "Maybe I should pay more attention to this," she thought.

Scouten and the Seeleys identified several inconsistencies in various accounts of White House Christmases. With nudging from her husband, Seeley, who holds a master's degree in American history, set out to piece it all together, traveling to presidential libraries for research.

What emerged were stories of families and politics, war and economic turmoil. By the time the first edition of her book was published in 1996, Seeley said, she understood much more about the first families through their Christmas traditions. She has updated it almost every year since.

The Clintons were the first family in recent history to put a photograph of themselves on the official card. The current president was the first to include scripture, something he began as governor of Texas.

The Kennedys were the only family known to have placed a religious image on a Christmas card, though it was never sent. The 1963 card pictured the creche from the East Room of the White House. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22 of that year, just after he and wife Jacqueline signed 30 of the cards.

The autographed creche card was packed up and preserved for years by Kennedy's social secretary. President Lyndon Johnson's advisers urged him to order a different card from Hallmark, which makes most of the presidential greetings. In 1985, the Kennedys' 1963 creche card surfaced, going for $45,000 at auction. Last weekend, another was sold for $9,500.

The Seeley White House Christmas collection has grown large enough that it has been on display at 10 presidential libraries. It includes about 500 pieces, about 70 percent of which are Christmas cards or gifts sent by the first family.

The collection is now showing at the Lincoln library in Springfield, Ill., through Jan. 8.

And the presidential project has changed Mary Seeley's life.

Since she and her husband got their first invitation to the White House, they have been back more than 20 times. "It was like 18 times and we kind of stopped counting," she said.

Selling the book evolved about six years ago into an online retail business, specializing in White House collectibles, including, of course, Christmas ornaments and cards. She has written a children's book based on a tour of the White House she took with her grandchildren. And, for the first time this year, Seeley was among the 1.4-million people who received a signed White House Christmas card of her very own.

"Something struck a chord in our hearts, and we wanted to do whatever we could to preserve the positive heritage of our country," Seeley said of her passion for all things White House and Christmas.

The only drawback: Managing the collection and the business is rather time-consuming.

"I'm ashamed to admit," Seeley said, "I haven't written a Christmas card for four years."

[Last modified December 21, 2005, 01:08:25]

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