White House Christmas / Kennedy Center Honors / Art Behind Bars

Have a very Merry Christmas and see how the White House is celebrating the holiday this year. The Kennedy Center Honors celebrate those who “the power to inspire.” Young African business people are learning through a chamber of commerce exchange program. America has its first Bangladeshi-American member of the Congress. And, finally, creativity can still thrive behind bars.

Christmas at the White House
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Merry Christmas from America.gov! Explore the White House’s “Holidays at the White House” page, where you can tour the decorations, send “Season’s Greetings” messages to troops abroad, and watch behind-the-scenes videos. Each year a theme is selected for Christmas at the White House, a tradition started by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in 1961. This year’s theme is Simple Gifts, a celebration of friends and family, hearth and home, and the simple things that bring joy at Christmas time.

“The Power to Inspire”
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A Kennedy Center Honor recognizes lifetime accomplishment by American performing artists and those from other nations who have achieved prominence in the United States. “The arts have always had the power to challenge and the power to inspire — to help us celebrate in times of joy and find hope in times of trouble,” says President Obama. The Kennedy Center Honors will be aired on CBS Television on December 28.

Africa’s “Rising Stars”
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Upendo Minja of Tanzania and Patricia Kafoe of Sierra Leone were exposed to new ideas on business and community development that they hope to implement in their African organizations during Chamber of Commerce board meetings in the United States. The two participated in a five week program designed to provide young “rising star” employees of chambers of commerce and business associations overseas with leadership skills and professional development in the United States.

Mr. Clarke Goes to Washington
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Hansen Hashem Clarke of Michigan will become the first Bangladeshi-American member of the U.S. Congress when the new congressional session begins in January. Clarke’s road to Capitol Hill mirrors the complex ethnic and social diversity of the United States in the 21st century.

Art Behind Bars
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The nonprofit Prison Creative Arts Project, founded by William Alexander in 1990, fosters the creation of original artwork in Michigan prisons and juvenile facilities. This creative expression is helping prisoners and at-risk youth examine and sometimes transform their lives. According to Alexander, all people have the capacity to create art — and to benefit from it. Left, a painting by incarcerated artist Maurice Scott which evokes the prison experience.

START Treaty Ratified / The Smart Grid / Gifts That Give Back

The Senate ratifies the U.S.-Russia START strategic nuclear arms pact. The U.N. General Assembly adopts an amendment supporting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. The United States is working with Pakistan to help it recover from devastating floods, working with Russia on smart grid technology, and working with some of Côte d’Ivoire’s neighbors to investigate how to reinforce the U.N. peacekeeping force in the country during the ongoing political crisis. Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants are spending a year in America. And finally, this holiday season, give a gift that gives back.

START Ratified by U.S. Senate
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The U.S. Senate ratified the New START arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia that will reduce each nation’s nuclear arsenals to their lowest levels in more than a half century. The Senate gave its approval by a vote of 71 to 26 on December 22. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 8 in Prague. 

U.N. Includes LGBT Rights
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The Obama administration welcomed the U.N. General Assembly’s adoption of a U.S.-sponsored amendment that restores gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in its broad condemnation of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. “Killing people because they are gay is not culturally defensible – it is criminal,” says White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

A U.S.-Pakistan Partnership
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The United States and Pakistan are working together on several new projects to help rebuild and improve agriculture, health, transportation and other services in Pakistan as that country continues to recover from devastating floods.

U.S. and Russia Talk Smart Grid
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Making energy use more efficient, reliable, affordable, secure, and more consumer-driven through smart grid technology was the topic of a series of recent meetings between Russian and American energy experts in Washington, D.C. and in Texas, made possible by the Energy Working Group of the U.S.–Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission.

U.N. Force in Côte d’Ivoire
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The United States is in discussions with some of Côte d’Ivoire’s neighbors to investigate how to reinforce the U.N. peacekeeping force in the country and ensure that it is capable of maintaining peace and security as its political crisis continues. Along with refusing to hand over power after his election defeat, Laurent Gbagbo has demanded that the 9,000-member U.N. peacekeeping force withdraw. The U.N. Security Council unanimously passed a resolution to extend the force’s mandate until June 30, 2011.

Fulbright Language Teachers
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More than 400 Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistants from 49 countries are spending a year in the United States, to not only hone their knowledge of the English language and American life, but also to encourage American students to study foreign languages and culture.

Photo Gallery: Gifts that Give Back
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During the holiday season, many people want to give gifts that have a greater meaning. It’s easier than ever to make a purchase that can help provide income to artisans in developing countries, support donations of food or medicine to the needy, aid victims of war or abuse, or support environmental efforts. Explore this photo gallery of “gifts that give back.” At right, a “Path to Peace” basket created by Rwandan women.

A Green Christmas / Côte d’Ivoire Violence / Persian Food Blogs

This year, many people are choosing to have a green Christmas by reducing their holiday carbon footprint. The United States condemns the violence in Côte d’Ivoire following the recent elections. And meet Persian food bloggers, who offer their readers both recipes and a sense of community.

Dreaming of a Green Christmas
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In recent years, many people have chosen to add a shade of green to their Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or other year-end festivities by limiting the size of their holiday carbon footprint. One British study found that households generate an additional 1,430 pounds (650 kilos) of carbon dioxide during Christmas. At right, The National Christmas Tree, shown here with President Obama and his family, is illuminated by LED energy-saving bulbs. 

U.S. Condemns Violence in Côte d’Ivoire
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Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Fitzgerald urges all Ivorians to respect the will of the people as expressed in a November 28 vote in which Alassane Ouattara was elected as the next president. Fitzgerald condemns the recent violence in Côte d’Ivoire as “egregious.”

An Online Taste of Iran
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Three Iranian-American women created separate blogs with parallel missions of offering Persian recipes. “I’ve always loved to write, and I’ve always loved to cook, and… I thought, ‘Well, why shouldn’t I be the one to have a blog about Persian food?’” says Sanam Lamborn.

Recipes for Persian Memories
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Persian food blogs offer recipes and a sense of community to their readers. Azita Mehran, author of the blog Turmeric & Saffron, writes mini-essays that includes recipes and memories of childhood trips or news of what she’s found at the market. Above, her red lentil soup.

Core Issues in the Middle East / Obamas Light Christmas Tree / Iran’s “Students Day”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says the Middle East peace process needs to focus on the conflict’s core issues. President Obama and the First Family light the National Christmas Tree. The 1975 Biological Weapons Convention is being used to prevent bioterrorism and to expand information-sharing. The United States is building a strong U.S.-Africa partnership. The third annual Bali Democracy Forum presents an opportunity to learn from other countries. A bright future is in store for the U.S. solar market. And finally, a former Iranian student activist talks about his time in prison.

Focusing on Core Issues in Middle East
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The United States believes it is time for the Middle East peace process to focus on the core issues of the conflict: borders and security, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says. “It is no secret that the parties have a long way to go and that they have not yet made the difficult decisions that peace requires,” Clinton, right, says.

The Obamas Light America’s Christmas Tree
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President Obama and the First Family lit the National Christmas Tree in front of the White House last night. Addressing the crowd at the tree-lighting ceremony Obama said: “On behalf of Malia, Sasha, Michelle, Marian — who’s our grandmother-in-chief — and Bo — don’t forget Bo — I wish all of you a merry Christmas and a blessed holiday season.”

Bio-Weapons Convention at 35
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The 1975 Biological Weapons Convention is being used today to prevent bioterrorism and to expand information-sharing and communication that can be used to combat any pandemic, spread deliberately or otherwise. It originally was designed to ban the development, production, and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons by nation states.

U.S.-Africa Priorities
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The United States government is very much focused and engaged on a wide array of issues across the African continent with an overall goal of building a strong U.S.-Africa partnership, says Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson. Carson says top priorities in Africa remain the same: strengthening democracy, good governance and adherence to the rule of law.

The Bali Democracy Forum
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Praising the opportunity to “listen and learn from the experiences of other countries,” Under Secretary of State Judith McHale expressed U.S. support for the third annual Bali Democracy Forum.

A Bright Future For Solar
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The U.S. solar market could grow eightfold to $8 billion by 2015, says a recent study by GTM Research, a market analysis company focusing on renewable energy industries. Driving growth are state policies that require power companies to generate a certain portion of their electricity from renewable sources, the report says.

Iran’s Students Day
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Abolfazl Jahandar, a former Iranian student activist and political prisoner, spoke at Virginia’s George Mason University on what Iran marks as Students Day, the anniversary of the slaying of three student demonstrators by Iranian police in 1953. Jahandar, left, spent three years in prison, including 400 days in solitary confinement, for his activism.

Obama Family Attends National Christmas Tree Lighting

Assisted by his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha, President Obama lit the National Christmas Tree in front of the White House last night.

The tradition of the National Christmas Tree began in 1923 when President Coolidge lit a 48-foot Balsam fir on Christmas Eve. The current tree – a 40-foot Colorado blue spruce – has stood near the White House since 1978, and has been lit by five different presidents and their families.

Addressing the crowd at the tree-lighting ceremony President Obama said: “And so during a time in which we try our hardest to live with a spirit of charity and goodwill, we remember our brothers and sisters who have lost a job or are struggling to make ends meet. We pray for the men and women in uniform serving in Afghanistan and Iraq and in faraway places who can’t be home this holiday season. And we thank their families, who will mark this Christmas with an empty seat at the dinner table.”

He added, “On behalf of Malia, Sasha, Michelle, Marian — who’s our grandmother-in-chief — and Bo — don’t forget Bo — I wish all of you a merry Christmas and a blessed holiday season.”

Christmas Decorations at the White House

The White House is welcoming the Christmas season with ornaments, marzipan sculptures, and an oversized replica of the Obama’s dog Bo crafted out of nearly 40,000 twisted pipe cleaners. Holiday decorations at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue are a yearly crowd pleaser, and 2010 will be no different. More than 100,000 people are expected to visit the White House this December to see the displays.

Visitors will experience the theme of this year’s White House Christmas celebration – “Simple Gifts” – first hand. Many of the decorations in the White House have been built out of basic, often reusable, materials such as wood, newspaper and magazine pages to emphasize the theme, which was selected by first lady Michelle Obama. A fact sheet from her office says the theme is meant to suggest a “celebration of friends and family, hearth and home, and the simple things that bring joy at Christmas.”

After working up an appetite during the walking tour, visitors will surely want to take a bite out of the 400-pound, white chocolate-covered gingerbread White House, which includes a miniature Bo made from marzipan and a replica of Michelle Obama’s fruit and vegetable garden.

Dozens of volunteers from across the United States have been working since Thanksgiving to decorate the White House for Christmas. You can watch them at work in this behind-the-scenes video from the White House: http://bit.ly/hf9aiS

Michelle, Malia and Sasha Welcome White House Christmas Tree

Last week, first lady Michelle Obama and first daughters Malia and Sasha Obama received this year’s official White House Christmas tree. The 18 ½-foot (5.6-meter) Douglas fir arrived by horse-drawn carriage and came from the Crystal Spring Tree Farm of Leighton, Pennsylvania.

The White House Christmas Tree will now be decorated and placed in the Blue Room, where visitors to the White House will be able to admire it. The National Christmas Tree Association has presented a tree for the Blue Room every year since 1966.

Another well-known Washington, DC Christmas tree is arriving this morning: The 2010 U.S. Capitol Christmas tree is a 67-foot (20.4-meter) Engleman spruce from the state of Wyoming. It traveled approximately 5,000 miles on a winding journey to get here. Visitors to Washington, DC will be able to view the tree, whose lights will be turned on December 7, in front of the U.S. Capitol Building

Happy Holidays?

At this time of year I find myself surrounded by holiday displays. Whether a display includes a nativity scene, angels, candles, a tree, Santa Claus, penguins or polar bears doesn’t matter to me; I consider them colorful – and at times extremely creative – celebrations of the season and examples of freedom of expression. I don’t mind if a display is religious, humorous or thought-provoking; I still enjoy it. But not everyone shares my view.

FSGP founder Margaret Downey and the 2009 Tree of Knowledge (C.E. Roper/Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia)

FSGP founder Margaret Downey and the 2009 Tree of Knowledge (C.E. Roper/Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia)

In particular, a display in the “Free Speech Zone” of the Chester County Courthouse in Pennsylvania the past few winters has received a lot of local attention, much of it negative. For many years, the zone displayed only a nativity scene and a Hanukkah candelabrum every December. Feeling these two religious symbols standing alone did not accurately reflect the diversity of beliefs in the county, a group of atheists called the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia (FSGP) successfully petitioned to put up a “Tree of Knowledge” in the zone in 2007, and did so again in 2008 and 2009. The displays, which consist of a large evergreen tree decorated with covers of books (PDF, 20KB) such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, have been the target of vandalism, protests and negative publicity.

“It’s wonderful for people to be able to voice their opinions, their ideas, and to share them. But I find that Christmas is an inappropriate occasion for this particular tree,” one area resident says in a 2008 video interview. “Call it what you want; it’s a Christmas tree, and Christmas is all about the birth of Christ. So I just feel that they could find a better occasion to display their items.”

FSGP founder Margaret Downey disagrees.

“To have this time of year designated for ‘religion only’ is absurd,” she says. “The community belongs to all of us. The Free Speech Zone belongs to all of us. Expressing our First Amendment rights belongs to all of us. It doesn’t matter what time of year we do it, as long as we exercise it.”

What do you believe?

(See the America.gov blog Talking Faith to join in more discussions on religion and related topics.)

Obama daughters won’t give away secret of dad’s Christmas gift

Obama family at children's hospital

The Obama children, and dog Bo, joined Michelle Obama at a children’s hospital in Washington, D.C., December 22. The girls answered children’s questions about what Christmas in the White House is like as Bo barked at Santa.

One of the children asked what the family got the president for Christmas. The first lady instructed her daughters not to give away the secret, and they didn’t. “It’s something good, though,” Malia said. “I hope he’ll like it.”

You can see video of the event on the Chicago Sun Times’ Web site.

I’ll Be Home For Christmas, If Only For A Week

For me, the month of December has always meant a return to seasonal sweaters of questionable taste, semi-professional over-eating, listening to cheesy holiday music non-stop and, most importantly, three weeks or more of vacation from school. For each of the last two years, in fact, I had more than a month off for winter break and took the opportunity to travel to other parts of the world and meet people I would not otherwise have been lucky enough to encounter.

Not so much this year. This year I have a job (believe me, I am not complaining about that), and I am using every ounce of my vacation time to see my family and hometown friends for a few days.

One of the unique things about living and working in Washington, D.C., is that very few people are actually from here. I am originally from Georgia (the state in the southern U.S., not the eastern European country), and much as I hate the thought of navigating the Atlanta airport so close to Christmas, I am excited to go home. I have co-workers who will be going home to places as far apart as Connecticut and California – very different experiences from Georgia, and from one another – but we have all made our home (at least for now) in D.C.

Most D.C. residents are migrants from other parts of the country. That means it’s a dead-zone for the week between the Federal holidays of Christmas and New Year’s Day when everyone travels to wherever they call home, but it also means they bring back with them the best parts of their distinctive cultural traditions. They also bring their best ideas and specific experiences about the challenges facing different parts of the world. This freedom to move about the country – and the world – talking with people, sharing ideas, asking questions and thinking about things in new ways helps inform and support the work that goes on here the other 51 weeks of the year.

The thing that brings us all to D.C., regardless of political ideology or issue area, is a shared belief in the system of democratic governance that has held the U.S. together for over 200 years, and a desire to be at least a small part of the policy-making process. I know that’s what brought me.

Do you have an example of how sharing different ideas or experiences has enriched your community? Share it in the comments – and happy holidays!