WASHINGTON -- President Bush thinks gifts should never, ever be opened before Christmas morning. A fondly recalled practice from first lady Laura Bush's childhood dictates tamales and enchiladas for the Christmas Eve menu.
Like millions of Americans, the president's family has developed its own set of traditions -- comforting in their familiarity and binding in their repetition -- that govern how Christmas is celebrated. But also like many other households, those cherished yuletide traditions often must make room for fresh faces and changing circumstances.
With Jenna off at the University of Texas, Barbara at Yale and their parents in the White House, the family's holiday custom of gathering to hang trinkets and tinsel on the Christmas tree now falls to others. And the hot chocolate that used to follow has been rescheduled for Christmas morning.
Asked if any special traditions -- such as the tree decorating or watching home movies on Christmas Eve -- have fallen by the wayside for the Bush family, Mrs. Bush did not hesitate.
''Yes!'' she said. ''We really miss the traditions because the girls are away at college. But we still drink hot chocolate and open presents as a family. Now, we just do it at Camp David.''
The presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains where the Bushes headed on Saturday happens to be a tradition of sorts for the family.
They often spent the holiday there when the president's father was in the White House as vice president and president. The current president, his wife and two girls would arrive in Washington a day or two before Christmas, maybe attend a White House reception and then head for the hills with the rest of the large, tight-knit clan.
Together, the Bushes' Christmas celebrations have become a blend of each of their families' traditions and their own accumulated history.
Included in the holiday decorations brought with them to Washington are two crches, one a Mexican nativity scene. Earlier this year an addition was added when Jenna, mindful of her parents' fondness for manger scenes, bought one while visiting Prague with her mother. Mrs. Bush, a former librarian, also likes to display Christmas books such as the children's classic ''The Polar Express'' on the coffee table.
A perennial favorite tree ornament is one made of construction paper displaying photos of the twins. The ornament, which they made as a project when they were about 2 years old, joins some from Mrs. Bush's childhood and even from her grandmother's collection. More recent acquisitions depict their beloved Scottish terrier, Barney, and other animals.
With Bush's ascension to the nation's highest office and the construction of a new home in Crawford, Texas, new traditions are being born.
The Christmas dinner menu was still mostly undecided several days out, with Mrs. Bush leaning toward a beef tenderloin. She had considered, but then discarded, a recipe for red velvet cake she recently spied in a magazine.
The gifts that will appear Christmas morning were being kept secret by the first lady's staff. One thing is certain: Per presidential order, they will remain wrapped until the family gathers in their pajamas around the tree on Christmas morning. Stocking gifts, usually the purview of Bush, will likely be waiting outside the girls' bedroom doors.
Some traditions do change with age, however. Jenna and Barbara, now 21, probably will not try to attach the gift bows around their pets' necks as they did every year when they were younger.
And one more change.
''Unlike when they were younger, they sleep later,'' said Mrs. Bush, who answered written questions through her spokeswoman.
''They are not the ones waking us up. We make the hot chocolate and wake them up. By that time, the president and I have already eaten our cereal.''
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