Christmas Decorating at the White House

About the second week of October I got a wonderful surprise.  It was an email from the Social Secretary at the White House asking me to be one of the 100 volunteers they select each year to help decorate the White House for Christmas.  I had written a letter to the Chief Floral Designer and to the Social Secretary back in January telling them of my interest, and finally word came.  As I talked with the volunteers once I was in DC, it was clear that we all had done the same thing.  We were not really selected on our ability to decorate….or who we were….or what we did in our daily lives.  We were selected because of our passion to want to be a volunteer in the People’s House, and to help make it beautiful for the People of the United States.  If I learned anything during this week of decorating, I learned that being a proud, helpful American is one of the most important things we can be.

One of the four trees I worked on in the East Room of the White House.

More photos below if you don’t want to read about the experience and just see pictures.

I traveled to Washington on Thanksgiving morning.  This would be the first time in 41 years that I have not spent Thanksgiving with my family.  It was a good day, turkey at Old Ebbitt Grill, and then the Smithsonian and National Gallery of Art.

We met at the White House gate at 7:30 on Friday morning.  “We” being about 90 volunteers.  The White House Social Secretary, Julianna Smoot, said they had invited about 100 volunteers, but only about 90 showed up to work.  I found out that I would be assigned to the East Room, although today, I would be working on lots of rooms.  We were shuttled to a support facility warehouse nearby where we would be working for the next two days.  The facility was full of boxes of Christmas decorations that we would be processing.

This year, the “theme” of the Christmas decorations was “Simple Gifts.”  The significance of this will reveal itself as these posts go further, but please keep that in mind as you read.

There were sample boards for every room on display.  These boards were no larger than half a poster board, and contained one of everything that would be used in each area.  One of all the ornaments, a piece of all the ribbons, etc.  There were also sample wreaths that had been made up for each room.  The wreaths would not actually be used in the house, but they were to illustrate again the same concept as the sample boards.  Anytime there was a question about what would go where, you could refer to the sample boards and sample wreaths.  Lots of crates and boxes had been pre-sorted by room, and everything was clearly labeled as to where it was to go.  I would estimate that more than 75% of everything that was being used this year was recycled from previous years.  Several of the people who had done the decorating years before said that the Obamas have toned down the decorations.  The Reagans started the large scale decorating tradition, and it has continued ever since.

The Military and Service tree “Gifts of Gratitude and Service” located in the East Entry area. This is the first tree visitors see upon entering the White House, and one of the ones we worked on preparing the decorations to be placed on it.

It seemed like about 70% of the volunteers were female.  I would also estimate that about 30% had done it before….maybe not quite that many.  For many years, a large percentage of volunteers were repeat workers, but this year, Mrs. Obama wanted to open up the opportunity to more Americans.  Most of the volunteers had a similar story about writing to the Chief Florist, First Lady, Social Secretary, one even wrote to Sasha and Malia.  Some wrote many letters, some only a short email.  Some sent their requests in early, and some last minute.  Everyone hears via email around the first week of October.  The age of the volunteers ranged from High School age to retirees.  There was one son who had brought his mom and dad with him as a surprise for them.  There was a grandson and his grandmother who wanted an adventure together; he surprised her with the trip as well.  There was a cancer survivor who just found out she was clear of the disease the week before she came.  This was sort of a renewal gift for her.  There was a young man who came with his family.  They were sightseeing while he was decorating.  Everyone was super nice, and there were no egos to contend with that I encountered.  The group I ended up working with most seemed really efficient and were always asking for more things to do while we were at the warehouse.

The first thing we did was to unpack  ornaments for a tree (never saw where this tree ended up…probably either in the private residence, the First Lady’s Office, or the Oval Office) that had been sent in from all over the country.  Towns, counties, states, organizations, even one from Candy Spelling decorated by her.  It was a pink bus that said “Hollywood” and had a white poodle as the driver.  Evidently, if anyone sends an ornament to the White House, it is earmarked for this specific tree.  We unpacked the ornaments, peeled off any labels, cut tags, etc., and put floral wire on them to be hung.

The gorgeous Aspen trees with crystal decorations flanking the entrance to the Blue Room. In the photo is White House Chief Usher, Rear Admiral Stephen Rochon, who is in charge of all household operations.

Next we unpacked some new holly leaf and berry ornaments, cut off the labels, and tied wire onto them.  Everything we touched whas then repacked in boxes for transport, but at least it was ready to be placed.  We next worked on boxes and boxes of ornaments from previous years.  Going through all of them to make sure they had wires on them, or reconfiguring how they would attach based on where they would be used.  We tied wide ribbon onto huge mercury glass ornaments.  The next thing we worked on was tying gold pinecones into clumps of three, which were then woven into a massive pinecone garland that will be used on the stairs in the Grand Foyer.  There were three guys who did an amazing job of weaving this together….Jordan, Robert, and Wayne.  It was painful to do with all the little needles on the pinecones.  The final element we worked on were the Aspen trees.  These were fresh cut Aspen trees that we worked ice cube-like acrylic beads up all the stems, and then topped off the tips with smaller cy fronds.  These will be put in huge 6-foot tall urns on pedestal bases and used in the Grand Foyer.  They will be uplit from the base with clear light.


Gold pinecone garland visible on the staircase railing in the Grand Foyer

Saturday was similar to Friday.  We met at the White House at 7:30, and went directly to the warehouse.  We worked a little more on some ornaments that were delivered late the day before unpacking and wire tying….and then came the gold leaves.  The leaves were recycled from a previous administration, and there were mountains of them.  I have never seen so many gold leaves.  Crates and crates of them.  All 90 of us were fluffing them out, and then tying wire to them to wire to the trees in the East Room.  After all that was done, we tied fruit into some of the gold leaf branches, and amber glass beads into others.  When that was all done, then came the fruit.  Again, it was being repurposed from previous administrations.  Bags and bags, and crates and crates of every kind of artificial fruit.  We tied pieces of fruit onto about 25% of the gold leaf twigs.  After all that was done, we started organizing the crates and boxes and getting them ready to go to the White House.  Everything we packed will have to be opened by the Secret Service for inspection before it can be loaded onto the guarded trucks that will haul the items there.  It was an amazing operation.

The beautiful State Dining Room trees decorated with gold leaves and fruit. The fresh lemon leaf garland is decorated with gold leaves with amber glass beads woven into it.

One of four fantastic fireplaces in the East Room bedecked with some of the gold leaves we worked on in the warehouse.

Food while we were at the warehouse was a treat, as would all the food we ate during this experience.  It was prepared by the White House staff, and sent over to us.  The first day we had turkey or veggie sandwiches (they thought of everyone’s food needs); two kinds of soup…beef and barley or cream of tomato; salad; and for dessert either lemon pie or vanilla ice cream.  Chips were out later in the afternoon for snacks, and you could get whatever kind of softdrink you wanted anytime.  The food was similar the second day….but once we were inside the house, the food became amazing.