Christmas at the White House-Part 2

A Bo in Every Room!

Decorating at the White House
Decorating at the White House

While working at the White House, we were very excited to see Bo, the presidential dog, run through the hallway one morning.  He was leashed up to go for a walk and we were delighted to see the most famous dog acting like a normal dog, prancing and ready to run!

So of course Bo is depicted in many materials throughout the house.  There is one in nearly every room and it is fun to try and find them all – both for kids and adults. The library has the largest rendition where Bo is made of black and white recycled trash bags.  I call him ‘Trash Bo’! There is one perched outside the beautiful gingerbread house in the state dining room made out of liquorice, also one from buttons, and one from pom-poms out of spun wool.

Mr Liquorice

But I guarantee that no one will find the one in the East Room.  This is the largest room of the White House located on the first floor.  I worked there for two 12 hour days decorating. Sitting on the floor, I hot glued dozens of itty, bitty, pine cone scales onto a resin base replica of Bo for 3 hours straight.  Then he was sharpied in black ink and placed in a moss garden under a window.  He is only 3 inches high so I doubt that anyone will find him!

Pine Cone Bo

The gingerbread house was a masterpiece of 400 pounds of white chocolate made to represent the White House in detail with crazy candy trees.

Gingerbread House with Trees

The East Room

I headed to the East Room the next day which is the largest room on the first floor of the White House.  There were 4 very large fresh trees set up to be decorated that already had hundreds of tiny white lights.

Our task was to place hundreds of feet of chartreuse green cedar garland around the trees with out toppling the trees. The garland was extremely heavy and had to be laid carefully on the branches and wired in. Then, thousands of 2 to 3 inch high real rock crystals were dangled all over the trees to give them a shimmery effect.

I also climbed ladders and scaffolding to add magnolia leaves, white pine, and cedar to the garlands that were draped over all the mirrors. It is scary to climb up on those shaky structures! We were always losing a ladder when we left it for a few minutes and someone came in and grabbed it.  Ladders were at a premium.

Mirro Garlands in East Room

Rock Crystals on East Room Trees

I started on the moss gardens at the base of the windows when the room designer asked for someone with gardening experience. Hello!!! Waterproofed bases that were made ahead of time to fit into the embrasures of the four windows were set in place and we started filling them with soil and ‘mood’ moss which is simply mounding moss to give dimension. I quickly filled them up and started to mold the moss into hills and valleys to give the gardens a three dimensional look.  Then boulders were artistically added and made to look part of the landscape by sinking them into the moss. Next we planted paperwhite bulbs, White Hellebores, and some blooming paperwhites.  With all the bulbs at different stages of bloom, there should be a succession of fragrant flowers for weeks to come. These winter gardens were natural and fresh for the winter season when you need to see something growing, and I will definitely try to duplicate this at home.

Shine, Give, Share

The theme of Shine, Give, Share was used to honor all military families and to pay tribute to our troops.  There were present  ‘American Gold Star Mothers’ who are mothers who have lost a son or daughter in the service of our country.  The official White House tree was located in the Blue Room and was covered with purple hearts, military ribbon wreaths, medals, and patches from all the military branches. The ‘Gold Star’ tree was located on the East Landing and had memorials from servicemen and women who have died in service. I talked to two of the Gold Star mothers.  One had a small picture of her son around her neck and came all the way from Kansas to work on the tree.

Gold Star Tree

Blue Room Tree

Gold Star Tree

White House Basement

The last day we were working we were led downstairs into the basement to visit the White House gift shop which is actually a closet.  It was stuffed with merchandise with the Executive Seal imprinted on it and I picked up a few shirts, jackets, and an apron.  I was fascinated when one of the guards pointed out to us that the lintel over the door to the basement showed burn marks and bullet holes that were still there from the war of 1812, when the White House burned down.  That is certainly a piece of history that not many people see.

Basement Opening with Burn Marks

All the utilitarian offices are located in the basement, such as the carpentry shop, the groundskeeper’s office, the florist shop, cold storage, housekeeping office, and the laundry.  I never found the famed bowling alley! But I was interested in the florist shop where the florists come up with their beautiful designs and they magically appear upstairs. I was even interested in their piles of beautiful containers and supplies.

Arrangements to Go Upstairs
Florist Shop at White House
Arrangement in Progress
Floral Containers

 State Dining Room 

I kept peeking into the State Dining Room as the decorating progressed and this ended up being my favorite and most beautiful room.  The ornament combinations were breath-taking in the texture and colors.  Jim Marvin led the team for this room and he designed a lot of the ornaments that we used at the White House. The trees were adorned with a collar of beaded fruit in vibrant colors.  The garlands over the door and mantel repeated the theme.

State Dining Room Mantel
State Dining Room Tree

 The colors of the State Dining Room were rich and wonderful. The beaded fruit was wired with bay leaves and seeded eucalyptus to give a natural but lush sophisticated look.

The ribbon used everywhere in the White House was extraordinary.  I think that the quantity and quality of the ribbon really added to the look, but I shudder to think of how much all that ribbon cost. But we weren’t focusing on the cost, only how to get the most dramatic and striking effect with it.

Ribbon in the Red Room

 Opening Reception 

The most anticipated evening of my life was here!  Here, all the hard work and planning that went into this endeavor was revealed. All the volunteers with guests started to line up on the street at the southeast entrance to the White House in a chilly wind in their best holiday finery.  We progressed through the security checks slowly, anxious to start the reception.  The White House staff had cleaned and made everything spic and span for the onslaught of visitors.  We were greeted by a school choir and a five piece military band playing Christmas music.

Carolers in the East Wing

I was already anticipating excellent food from my experience the previous several days, but the reception cuisine was extra special.   There were raw oysters, a carving station, petite multi-colored potatoes, smoked salmon, shrimp, and crab claws.  I just took a bite of each.  Decadent desserts prevailed; there were even iced cookies in the shape of Bo, as well as honeybees.

We were all expecting Michelle Obama to appear as there was a podium set up and people started to gather in anticipation.  Mrs. Obama descended from the residential floor and, since I am too short to see anything, I relied on my taller husband.  All I could see was everyone’s cameras held aloft with her image. But my husband somehow got in front and shook her hand along with many others.

Before we knew it, it was time to go.  The White House staff doesn’t just throw you out though.  They go room by room and shut the doors so no one can go back in and the people already in there just trickle out.  It is done very unobtrusively, so you really don’t feel rushed, but people gradually meander out.

Bo in Library

Decorating the White House was huge fun for me.  Surprisingly, when I asked other volunteers if they would apply next year, most reponded that one year was enough.  They remarked about the expense, the time, and the hard work involved, and thought that would be it.  But I am already thinking about next year!

Copyright Claire Jones 2011

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