The temperature was in the low 40s and there was a light breeze and drizzle, but Lily Spandorf would not be deterred. A familiar visitor all around Washington, D.C., the Austrian-born free-lance artist was determined to make one of her on-the-spot watercolors. So she bundled up on the afternoon of December 17, 1962 and made her way to the White House where, during the Christmas Pageant of Peace, President John F. Kennedy would light the National Christmas Tree, a 72-foot-tall blue spruce imported from Colorado.
At 5:15 p.m., the president pushed the button and the tree, decorated with 5,000 multicolored lights and 4,000 ornaments, flickered to colorful holiday life. It would be the only time JFK would light the national tree.
As soon as the lights came on, Spandorf — who made her living with on-the-spot paintings around the city — went to work, creating a painting with people admiring the decorated tree and a partial view of the White House in the background.
A lot happened with that painting. It became the principal design for the United States’ second Christmas stamp, that for 1963. Postal officials at first asked for an adaptation. Spandorf eliminated the holiday onlookers and placed the tree even greater in the foreground. In the end, illustrator Norman Todhunter of Connecticut modified the design even more to include a view of the full White House and a more distant view of the tree. But Spandorf is still given credit as the main illustrator.
At about the same time the Post Office Department was creating the stamp, Colortone Press President A.J. Hackl, a longtime admirer of the artist’s, also became interested in the tree painting. He worked out a deal to use the painting as a Christmas card, the first time a stamp and card came from the same source.
The stamp was formally issued November 1 in Santa Claus, Indiana. Spandorf attended the ceremony. The holiday season carried a cloak of great sadness from Kennedy’s assassination. But apparently, the stamp helped folks cope somewhat as it sold a then-record 2 billion examples.
Spandorf was born in 1915 in Vienna, Austria. Like many Jews, she fled eastern Europe before the start of World War II, immigrating to London. She made her way to New York City in 1950 and finally to the nation’s capital a few years later. Spandorf contributed artwork to many publications, including the Washington Post, National Geographic, and the Washington Evening Star. She died in 2000 at the age of 85. In recent years at least two retrospective exhibits of her artwork have been held.