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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China Room

Decorating the White House for Christmas-Part 1

East Landing with Bo

Everyone loves to decorate for Christmas and after finishing decorating my house, I itch to do more! So I have always had a desire to decorate the White House but thought it was an impossible dream. But after watching the HGTV special last year and seeing the army of volunteers that are busily hanging garlands and balls, I was determined to try.

I got to see the famous bee hive on the White House grounds
I got to see the famous bee hive on the White House grounds

I wrote a letter to Michelle Obama right after Christmas and forgot about it. But in August I was thrilled to get an official letter from the White House Social Office informing me that I could fill out the volunteer application on line which I did right away. The application was pretty standard and asked things such as to list and explain in some detail your volunteer experience, and to send pictures of your work. I have decorated Hampton Mansion for Christmas with my Garden Club for many years and hoped that that experience would help.

I love this portrait of Grace Coolidge at the White House
I love this portrait of Grace Coolidge at the White House

In October I was thrilled to learn by email that I was accepted conditionally pending a security check. The Social Office also requested that volunteers not post to Facebook or blog about their experiences before the event but afterwards was fine.  The reason was to keep the theme secret before “the big reveal” on November 30th. The theme was to be kept secret until our opening reception on the 30th but we suspected that it was a military theme.

Everything Red!

Once I learned that I was accepted, I started to get emails from AgencyEA, an event planning company based in Chicago. AgencyEA is known for planning Ophra Winfrey’s events so I knew that they must be good.  AgencyEA reserved blocks of rooms in two hotels that were within walking distance of the White House with a really good rate as it can be quite expensive to stay in D.C. I made arrangements to stay at the Donovan House for 6 nights and planned on checking in on Thanksgiving night.

The Red Room has red silk covered walls
The Red Room has red silk covered walls

After eating dinner at my brother’s house, my husband and I drove into D.C. and checked in to the hotel and met some of my fellow decorators and people from AgencyEA. I got a red badge, red work apron,  and room assignment- the red room! The Agency told everyone that we would be working for 2 days at an off site warehouse and then 3 days at the White House.  I learned that I would be working with a team of 130 volunteers and AgencyEA employees from over 40 states.  There were mother/daughter , husband/wife, and sister teams, and the youngest volunteer was 12 and the oldest was 80!

After being told to report the next morning at 6:30 AM in the downstairs lobby to board the buses I turned in.

One of the gardens that I planted with bulbs and moss
One of the gardens that I planted with bulbs and moss


The next morning, the drive to the warehouse lasted about 40 minutes and we arrived at a huge brick warehouse that the National Park Service rents and stores all the Christmas paraphenalia from previous years and other props used by the Park Service.  It was fascinating to walk up and down the aisles and see what was there.  There were pallets of stuff, such as lumber, corn oil ???, sleds, silver bowls, large urns, plus tons of Christmas stuff.  It was a veritable treasure trove of Christmas decorations- the mother load!!!

The ornaments used were beautiful and each had to be individually wired to the tree
The ornaments used were beautiful and each had to be individually wired to the tree

But we were put right to work and there was a huge amount of work to do!!! I started out inventorying boxes of ornaments, taking the wrappers off of ornaments and removing the hang tags from balls and replacing them with wires.  People are known to steal the ornaments from the trees at the White House so the balls must all be wired to the trees. We worked with the decorations that belonged to a specific room and made sure that everything was accounted for and placed in the loading area when we were done.  It could take hours and hours to do a room depending on the size. I worked with a team of about 6 or 7 people. Each room had a “key” basket that contained an example of every kind of ball, ribbon, or branch used to decorate that particular room.  A designer from AgencyEA had selected the colors and ornaments and ribbon months before.

Fellow volunteers decorating
Fellow volunteers decorating

Wreaths and Things

Cedar Stars in White House East Landing

Someone from the Agency  asked if anyone knew how to make wreaths and I volunteered because I preferred to make something rather than count and wire ornaments. I was assigned then as the team leader for a group of 7 people to assemble 8 cedar stars about 3 feet in diameter that would be hung in the East room landing by the Gold Star tree. Since the cedar stars would be hung in the window, they needed to be double sided. After dragging 50 feet of extemely heavy garland over to our work station, we set to work dismantling the cedar garland and wiring the bunches onto the star wreath bases. The wreaths took all day and into the next as they were very labor intensive.

Other teams were involved in a variety of tasks- making endless pine cone garlands, sewing felt poinsettia petals and leaves, unloading and sorting tons of fresh greens, making knotted wreaths out of military medal ribbons, constructing felt trees, and wiring hundreds of thousands of ornaments.  Someone was even sewing on an ancient Singer sewing machine. The tasks were endless.

Lunch was a festive affair with wraps, hot soup, snacks, desserts, and drinks.  It felt good to be sitting down for a while!

Military Medal Ribbon Wreaths
Pine Cone Garlands

At the end of the day, we piled into the buses and went back to the hotel and collapsed. But we returned the next day and did it all over again, but at a more feverish pace because we had to get it done by the end of the day. By the end of that second day we all realized that the theme for the Holiday would be a military one as so many of the decorations were all about the armed forces.

Cut Out Poinsettias in East Landing
Framed Purple Hearts on Blue Room Tree

White House!!!!

Here was the whole reason we all volunteered! To actually go to the White House and decorate.  I met some of my new friends in the dark outside our hotel at 6:15 AM for our trek. We walked 10 minutes to the White House and ended at the North East entrance for security check points.  The Agency stressed to us beforehand that we needed our badges, name tags and a photo ID to get in.

Security Checkpoint at the White House

There were two security checkpoints to go through where they look at your driver’s license and check your name off of a list. You and your belongings have to go through a metal detector. It was pretty much like airport security except you could keep your shoes on. The security lines took about a half an hour and then we were in! We entered through the East Landing and were treated to coffee and donuts and figured out where the bathroom was. The entrance hallway is quite interesting with lots of candid photos from past and present administrations lining the walls.

East Landing of the White House

We were given a tour of the White House and met the Chief Usher, the Special Assistant to the President, the Curator, and the Executive Housekeeper. We were made to feel welcome and appreciated. The Curator stressed to us that the White House is a living museum and asked that we not touch or handle the furnishings.  All of us were just in awe to be inside and wouldn’t think of touching anything!

Our first task was to unload all the boxes that were delivered by truck to the White House and make sure that each labeled box was carried to the correct destination. Then we got to the best part –decorating!

Red Room

Color palette of the red room
Color palette of the red room

The Red Room is one of three state parlors on the first floor of the White House and is decorated in different shades of red.  The walls are actually hung with burgundy silk. Usually the Christmas decorations are all bright screaming red but I was relieved to see that the decorator had taken a different tack and we were going to use copper, gold, dark red, wine, cinnamon, and touches of cream.  I approved of the color palette!

My job the first day was to decorate the Red Room with 5 other people.  We looked through our “key basket” to see what materials we had to work with and started brain storming about the best way to get everything done.  We had two 5 foot trees mounted in large red wooden planters, and a gorgeous Italian marble mantel with caryatid supports to decorate.  For materials, we had beautiful glittery pine cone balls, yards and yards of 8″ wide coppery gold wired ribbon, gold leaf branches, fresh lemon leaves, 2 long balsam fir garlands, and assorted glass ornaments with some snowflakes.  The ornaments ranged from a dozen large copper balls, smaller gold and white ones, to glittery tear drops. We were told to start decorating and we jumped right into it and made some very large bows for the mantels and adorned the garland on the mantel with an assortment of the ornaments.

Then we started to decorate the trees with doubled ribbon garlands swagged around the trees.  We put the larger ornaments in the center of the tree and filled in every available spot with the smaller ornaments.

When lunch rolled around we strolled over to the formal dining room where a fantastic hot buffet awaited us. Salads, thick sliced ham, soups, breads, drinks and dessert were all available.  The White House staff ate first and then we got in line. The kitchen staff was phenomenal! They must have known that with all the physical work that we did we would be hungry.

Red Room Tree

A crew from HGTV with Genevieve was circulating around the rooms filming and interviewing people for the Holiday special that will be aired Dec 11. They talked to me for a few minutes while I was decorating the trees and had me sign a release form.

After working all day, we left at 4PM to go back to the hotel and collapse.

White house collage

Copyright Claire Jones 2011