It took an hour for 90 people to get through three security checkpoints to get inside the White House. They were super thorough.
Once inside, it was easy to move about the public areas of the house. There was a screen set up in the lower cross hall to screen the President and First Family as they came and went. I am certain they have little privacy, so this was understandable. The house is really beautiful. It feels very intimate for the President’s residence, which surprised me. It is a big house, don’t get me wrong, but the overall feeling is very approachable and welcoming.
Our first task was to unload all the trucks with the supplies we had been working on at the warehouse. This took about two hours. You would get a box, take it to where it needed to go, and then go get another one. Some of the things took two or three people to carry, so it took a while. I was one of a few volunteers who got to walk through the Palm Room and Rose Garden to help unload things that were destined for the West Wing. This area is typically totally off limits, so it was great to see it first hand. The oval office was visible and within a few hundred feet of me. The rose garden is beautiful in person.
Once the trucks were unloaded we started working in our assigned rooms. I worked in the East Room. Bill was the room lead. He is an 82 year old man who has been decorating during the holidays at the White House for more than 40 years. He is amazing at the stories he tells….and can referrence looks from so many different administrations. One thing he said is that the recycled newspaper trees in the Green Room are a direct take off of something that was done in the 1940’s when there were no additional resources from which to make decorations. I was in charge of designing the way the ribbon was placed on the East Room trees. We used four ribbons: a really wide gold satin ribbon, a blue silky ribbon, a blue brocade ribbon, and a soft blue. The soft blue would be made into rosettes along with a plum color. The color scheme in the East Room was derived from the peacock theme in that room. Ultimately, the “Simple Gift” of the East Room was the “Gift of Nature’s Splendor”. We had six large peacocks that a Michigan artist had made from dried flowers he had gathered from the woods around his home. We used one of these at the top of each tree, and worked gold leaves and some of the large rosettes arund them so they appeared to be nesting in the trees. The other two peacocks would be used in the garland over the entrance door to the East Room. With the help of two other people, I tied the peacocks into the tops of all four 14 feet tall trees in the East Room.
Monday morning started another amazing day. When I got to the White House this morning at 7:30, I could not believe what a giant mess we had left the night before. Even though we spent an hour straightening up, it was still a disaster. I was relieved to know that even in the President’s house, a fantastic Christmas decorating job makes an enormous mess. By mid-day there were scads of volunteers just breaking down boxes and carrying trash out to the trucks.
I continued to work in the East Room. After I got a team working on each tree, I took on the task of decorating the garland over the entrance door to the room. Alison was my helper. We placed lengths of all four ribbons, two giant peacocks made from dried flowers, and many of the gold leaves that had been used before. We also added some glass ornaments, and it was spectacular when it was complete.
We had lunch today (and every day at the White House) in the State Dining Room. There was an array of things to choose from, and everthing we ate was delicious. In the mid-afternoon each day there was a special treat. Sunday we had chocolate chip cookies, today popcorn. The smell of these things baking filled the rooms just like it does at home. It really made you feel like you were working on something for yourself.
There are layers of detail everywhere. The Blue Room tree is really interesting with all the decorations being made by SCAD….Savannah College of Art and Design. It really does have the “Simple Gifts” theme, with all of the decorations being made from recycled or 100% sustainable products. The East Room is probably the most elegant room. The Red Room is my favorite. How could you not love that color? It is such a pretty shade of red, and this year they have mixed purple and hot pink with the red. It is rich and beautiful.
There are many people on the White House staff who have been there for years. Bob, one of the carpenters who helped me on this day has been there for over 20 years. He came to the rescue when the large garland I was working on broke in two. It had to be competely disassembled and re-done. Everyone on staff is really friendly.
Tuesday was my favorite day. The house shaped up fairly quickly, and the majority of spaces were completed by 2:00. I had to hang all the wreaths above the mantles in the East Room on the mirrors and do bows and gold leaves on them. The paintings of George and Martha Washington by Gilbert Stuart and Eliphalet Andrews that had been covered up while we were in the room decorating were uncovered, and the 18th century creche was also uncovered. It had been hiding behind the curtains of the large windo in the East Room.
One thing that has been amazing to me is what a great job the Social Secretary’s office did in selecting the volunteers. Both people who are gifted with a knack for design and those who aren’t are totally necessary. They had the mix perfected. There is really a place for both types of people. I could not have done the work that I did without the help of someone preparing the things I was working and handing them to me. Otherwise, I would have been coming up and down the ladders every minute.
The Grand Foyer was the last room to be completed. The trees were done yesterday, but the garlands weren’t started until 2:00. All of the lead designers from each room ended up working on the Grand Foyer garlands. There was a great energy here. It was great so see everyone who had created the centerpiece of each room come together as a team in the foyer. We covered the garlands with red poinsettia blossoms made out of ribbon, gold pinecones, repurposed gold leaves, and whatever ribbon we could scrounge together from the different rooms. The garlands were amazing, and would become the backdrop of the First Lady’s address at the reception I would attend on Wednesday.
There are many other beautiful spaces in the White House, and each had its own special “Simple Gift.” Scrolls were added to each tree explaining the symbolism. It was very emotional to see the meanings that were intended behind all the work that was done. Following are photos of more of the spaces along with descriptions of their “Simple Gifts.”