Located in New Bern, North Carolina, near the intercoastal waterway, you can experience North Carolina’s colonial past in a beautiful historic building that dates back to 1770. John Hawks, a London architect, was brought here by Royal Governor William Tryon to build an impressive brick Georgian style structure to house his family and to become the first permanent state capitol of North Carolina.
An invitation to speak at Tryon Palace in North Carolina, gave me an opportunity to see how this colonial palace decorated for the Yuletide season. Similar to Williamsburg style with “della robbia” type of decorations – lots of fruits, pods, and other natural decorations are used. See my post on a Illuminating Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg for more colonial style decorations. Tryon Palace has never been on my radar before but now I can’t believe that I have never heard of it!
The use of fabric really was stunning and unusual- a treatment that I would love to duplicate. Beautiful fabric swags are gathered in at the top of the ceiling in the Council Chamber (top photo); The room is used for dancing on Candlelight evenings. The first sessions of the assembly for the State of North Carolina were held here after the revolution and housed the state governors until 1784. After fire destroyed the building in 1789, the building and grounds were rebuilt and restored to its present glory.
“Seasons of Giving: A Candlelight Christmas Celebration” was the theme this year with the Candlelight tradition at Tryon Palace in its 37th year. Decorations were inspired by the 12 Days of Christmas, historic characters in period clothing were present, and holiday vignettes spanning across three centuries were shown. For a schedule, go to Tryon Palace’s website. Too late for most things this year, I am going to try to make it next year.
Definitely Tryon Palace warrants a visit just to see the fabulous gardens, that look good even in December.
For Christmas decorating, 29 volunteers, among the other staff of Tryon Palace, help out. Moving objects, creating faux food displays, coordinating holiday tours, and assisting with adhering to “period correctness” are all part and parcel of the many details of creating a special Christmas experience. Hadley Cheris, Gardens and Greenhouse Manager, is the point person for all this activity, and is energetic and knowledgeable about the creation of the historic decorations.
For more posts on decorating period houses, go to Hampton Mansion. The importance of using age appropriate materials – like fruits, pods, and fresh greens – that were available during the historic period is important to keep the antique context of the house.
The 29 volunteers contributed over 250 hours of work over a week and a half period. Decorating begins November 13 and is completed on November 22 at Tryon Palace. Included in the decorating are three historic homes, the exteriors of 13 buildings, and seven large entryways/gates.
Candlelight tours are popular as well as circus acts, history vignettes, Jonkonnu troupe (African-American holiday celebration), music performances, and candlelit grounds are all part of the Tryon Palace experience. For more information, go to Tryon Palace.
America’s largest home, Biltmore, was the vision of George W Vanderbilt who built the 250-room French Renaissance Chateau, exhibiting the Vanderbilt family’s original collection of furnishings, art and antiques. The estate encompasses over 8,000 acres which includes gardens designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead.
A tradition that goes back 120 years, Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, transforms into a Yuletide extravaganza from November 3, 2017 to January 7, 2018. I had the opportunity to travel to that area of the country a few weeks ago and was blown away with the decorations celebrating the theme – “A Vanderbilt Christmas”. Getting in the spirit of Christmas as you go through the house is exciting as you see the amazing decorations. A 250 room house, Biltmore is so large that any decorations could look lost, but there are 55 trees in the house and another 45 trees scattered throughout the estate and everything is done on a grand scale.
Bows & Ribbon
More than 1000 bows are used inside the house with twice that many in the surrounding estate. Velvets, metallics, burlap, satin, and printed cotton are all used with a blue velvet one my favorite.
Think “Gilded Age”, a period of economic prosperity in the U.S. from the 1870’s to the early 1900’s, the age of The Titanic, and you will see evidence of this everywhere. These weren’t simple decorations – lavish, elaborate, and rich were the words that came to mind when I entered the house.
George Vanderbilt opened Biltmore House for the first time to family and friends on Christmas Eve 1895. Biltmore’s Christmas events are based on what has been learned from the archives about that first holiday celebration.
The Changing of the Firs
Since 1975, the Andrews family of North Carolina, has supplied the 35-foot-tall Fraser fir trees that are erected in the seven-story-high Banquet Hall during each holiday. A side of their mountain overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains dedicated to the estate, the Andrews family grows these trees especially for Biltmore’s holiday celebration.
Taking approximately 50 Biltmore staff members to carry in, raise, and secure the Fraser Fir in the Banquet Hall, I was amazed to learn that the tree is replaced mid-season! Because of fire safety of the house, the replacement comes in around 4 AM of the day it is to be replaced and everyone rushes to decorate and is finishing it up by 9 AM when the first guests arrive. In addition, the fresh garlands of white pine and Fraser Fir are replaced weekly to maintain a fresh look and fragrance!
Wreaths & Kissing Balls
Wreaths are made of fresh white pine and Fraser fir, with sprays of golden arborvitae, holly, or other natural materials such as twigs and cones. About 360 fresh wreaths are used as well as 130 faux pieces are placed around the estate. Over 100 kissing balls, both fresh and faux are used, some with the signature topper bow.
Gilded Age Decor
A unique time in American history, the Gilded Age included the construction of grand and elegant estates filled with high society and glamorous parties. Rich layers of color accented with metallic touches of gold, silver, and platinum reflects the luxury of the times.
Fans decorate the trees in the library
A huge rectangular room, the Tapestry Gallery contains tapestries from 1500’s Flanders woven from silk and wool. These were intended to show how the seven virtues−faith, prudence, charity, chastity, temperance, fortitude and justice−would always prevail over vice.
Starting on Christmas Eve in 1895 when George Vanderbilt welcomed his family and friends for the first time to his new home in North Carolina, the family started a tradition. He and his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Cornelia, spent many Christmases together in Biltmore House, and started a gift-giving tradition that is still honored today. Mr. Vanderbilt’s descendants – the Cecil family, now the estate’s owners and caretakers – host the annual employee holiday party, just like the Vanderbilt’s did. Making sure each child of the estate employees receives a gift, an employee party is held. A team fills the Winter Garden floor with more than 1,000 wrapped gifts for the party and Santa and the Cecil’s will hand them out to each child.
Tall arched windows look out onto the terraced butterfly garden and the Walled Garden beyond, and the pointed glass roof lets in an abundance of natural light at the Conservatory, a short distance from the house.
There are over 1,000 traditional poinsettias found in the Christmas displays around the estate, along with over 1,000 Amaryllis, Christmas cactus, orchids, peace lilies, cyclamen, begonias, and kalanchoe and potted green plants.
A Decorating Heritage
Seven full time floral designers as well as 14 staff on the floral reserve team starts very early for the onslaught of over 300,000 visitors. It takes lots of help from Engineering, Housekeeping, Museum Services, Horticulture, Guest Services, Security, and Events, to make the magic happen. Read an interesting article about Kathy Barnhardt who was the Floral Displays Manager for 40 years at Biltmore. Kathy started fresh from college at Biltmore with decorating just five trees in the house from paper ornaments that she and her mother cut out! She just retired this year, but she certainly started many of the decorating traditions seen today.
The theme is selected a year in advance, and the preliminary work in a warehouse starts in July. Actual decorating of the house commences in October. Sounds like a White House Christmas! See my post on Decorating the White House .
What’s Next?- Titanic Exhibition
The first exhibition of fashions from “Titanic,” the Oscar-winning film that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, will launch at Biltmore in February 2018 in “Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic the Movie.” Set for Feb. 9 through May 13, 2018, the exhibition represents the extensive wardrobes preferred by transatlantic travelers like George and Edith Vanderbilt in the early 1900s.
Bromeliad tree in Conservatory
Multiple trees line the Tapestry Gallery
This jeweled cobalt blue velvet ribbon was my favorite
The table in the banqueting hall
Hundreds of these stars were on the spruce tree
Beautiful mantel in the conservatory
CHRISTMAS Facade with outdoor tree in full lighting. Bonesteel crew lighting house interior and exterior.
Volunteering at the White House for Christmas is a bucket list item for many people. It is a great honor to be accepted to decorate at the White House and I have written about previous years. This year was the third time that I participated and I always meet people at the White House who have applied after reading about my experiences and been accepted.
Lots of people apply, so if you are enthusiastic about Christmas decorating, have experience with designing or decorating, and enjoy working as a team, you have a good chance of being accepted. Most of your day is spent standing or climbing ladders and scaffolding, and doing such tasks as rewiring Christmas ornaments for hours at a time. But as anyone will tell you, its lots of fun meeting like-minded people from all over the country and being part of a cohesive, passionate and caring team of people. I love it!! The best part is the friendships that are formed that last a long time.
Over 150 volunteers from 29 states were selected. Everyone works during Thanksgiving week for a partial week or the entire week. I elected to work the entire week and since I live within driving distance, I drove home for my holiday meal. But others who were flying in to work, found a local restaurant for Thanksgiving.
Around 12,000 ornaments, 53 trees, and 71 wreaths, were used to transform the state floor and the lower level into a winter wonderland. The theme “Time-Honored Traditions” was designed by First Lady Melania Trump to pay homage to 200 years of holiday traditions at the White House.
Monday morning before Thanksgiving at 6AM, we all gathered in the lobby of a D.C. hotel and started our first day of work. The first few days we worked at an offsite warehouse doing prep work, like wiring new ornaments and removing old wires from recycled ornaments. Many ornaments are recycled from previous years and are stored from year to year. Another team worked at the White House early, wiring up the many Christmas trees with lights.
I along with a helper, worked on four different boxwood topiaries. Two were double ball topiaries and the others were large ( 12-15″ diameter)single balls. Tedious and exacting work, inserting short lengths of fresh boxwood into the Styrofoam took us almost two days. Others were working on wiring ornaments, organizing room boxes, making Cricut paper cutouts for garlands and trees, wiring garlands together, and going through old ornaments.
Volunteers and staff at the White House were always cheerful and accommodating and each person had a story to tell about how they applied and got chosen. I met some old friends from previous years and caught up.
I was thrilled to work in the Blue Room again as it is the center of the State Floor with a breath-taking view of the South Lawn. Oval shaped, the Blue Room has been the traditional place for presidents to formally receive guests. After making and placing some “ribbon bursts” on the beautiful State tree, I moved on to decorate the mantel. I love doing mantels, more so than decorating trees, so I was excited. After the huge garlands were placed on the mantel we wired the garlands up with tiny white lights. Making sure that the wires were concealed by fresh greenery, I and my helper Cherry, labored on the garland for several hours, pushing the wire into the body of the garland. We ended up adding five strands of lights to completely cover it. The ends of the garland were left to “puddle” on either side for an elegant rich look.
Adding large blue velvet bows with dove-tailed ends in the center and on either side started the process of decorating the garland. Antique gold oak leaves, state seal balls, and large gold balls were added to the garland which mirrored what was used on the towering tree in the center of the room. More blue velvet ribbon pieces were added weaving through the garland and I added large gold sprayed sugar cones on either side dangling from gold-wired ribbon. Being careful that the garland doesn’t touch the walls and possibly damage them, the whole process took about a day and a half to complete.
Each of the gold state seal balls were engraved with all 56 state and territory seals and I made sure to include a variety on the mantel.
My next favorite room was the Green Room which is dedicated to crafts, paper, and classic design. Covered in a delicate green silk fabric chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy and striped cream, white, and coral drapes and furniture, it is located adjacent to the Blue Room. Because of its proximity, I checked on the decorating progress frequently and was awed by the silhouettes and Cricut cut pine cones and mistletoe. Cricut is the brand name of an electronic cutting machine that looks like a printer. Intricate botanical shapes were produced in the warehouse and then put together to form beautiful forms on the Green Room mantel and tree.
On the other side of the Blue Room is the Red Room with carmine red walls and drapes, an Aubusson carpet, and a gilded wood French chandelier.
A peppermint candy theme was carried throughout the room with apothecary jars placed on the tree, mantel and sideboards. Exploding with lollipops, crushed candy, old-fashioned ribbon candies and red and white cookies (all real), the room was alive with color. The plaid red and white wired ribbon was gorgeous and paired perfectly with the white ribbon edged in red. The tree box similar to the Green Room was faced with Cricut paper pieces with an iced cookie from the White House kitchen topping everything off.
The Cross Hall runs East to West on the main floor of the White House connecting the East Room and the State Dining Room and includes the Grand Foyer. A forest of trees decorated with crystal ornaments and glittery snow greeted visitors as they entered.
The decorations celebrated the first themed White House Christmas, which was the ‘Nutcracker Suite’ in 1961, To create depth on the trees, we placed the ornaments close to the trunk as well as towards the outer tips of the branches. Light strands were treated the same way; The string of Christmas lights was twisted around the branch from trunk to branch tip and wrapped back to the trunk to start on another branch.
The East Room is the largest room in the White House and used as a reception room. The trees here were decorated with a gorgeous emerald-green velvet ribbon with a shiny gold reverse. I was part of the team that cut out the matching tree skirts and the ribbon was used to edge the hem for an elegant touch.
Bursts of emerald-green ribbon were added to the trees with ornaments in varying hues of green for a lush elegant look. The mantels were treated similarly.
The long hallway in the East Wing is always a great decorating opportunity. In 2015, I loved the snowflake theme. But this year, the towering frosty branches that arched overhead were a sight to behold.
Up lighting the branches created a magical feeling at night.
The Vermeil Room contains portraits of First Ladies and houses the silver-gilt collection or “Gold-Ware” which is on display. I love the portraits that decorate this room and the decorations pick up the gold theme.
The library contained a Christmas tree made out of books- a novel approach to a Christmas tree! The books were artistically stacked on a tiered shelf with boxwood peeking out from the “trunk”.
In a glass case next to the Library’s mantel is a copy of Charles Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” that belonged to Franklin Roosevelt who was said to read it to his family on Christmas Eve.
One of three oval rooms in the White House, the Diplomatic Reception Room is papered in antique French scenic wallpaper. I loved seeing the details of the wall paper which was obtained by Jacqueline Kennedy.
One of the most interesting feature of the Diplomatic Reception Room is that a previously unused chimney was opened up in 1935, and a new mantel and fireplace installed for Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “fireside chats.”
Gold Star Tree
The Gold Star tree honors service members and their families, particularly those who have given their lives for our country. Decorated with gold stars and patriotic ribbon, the tree is interactive, allowing visitors to write holiday messages to service members.
To cap off our hard work decorating, we were treated to a volunteer reception where we could see the results of everyone’s hard work revealed. Lamb chops, tenderloin, smoked salmon, and lots of other goodies are laid out in a buffet. And the White House has the best mac and cheese and egg nog ever!
Grab your glue gun, pruners, or pastry bag, and browse your favorite Pinterest boards and blogs. Thanksgiving and Christmas are right around the corner, and I’ll be serving up a hearty helping of crafting inspiration to get your house ready for the onslaught of family and friends. Rounding up my favorite posts on decorating for the holidays and adding new, these are inspiration for anyone who has a mantle, tabletop, or front porch/patio to add some holiday cheer.
Mantels and Living Spaces
A well-styled and accessorized fireplace mantel has lots of layers and harmonizing colors. A neutral background helps set it off perfectly. For how-to on creating the perfect mantel, go to Mantel Magic to see step by step on layering for a lush look as well as some White House examples when I worked at the White House. Arranging a sofa or sectional to create an intimate family space or a place to set your Christmas tree is also important during the holidays.
Miniature House & Gardens
Miniature gardens are fun to create with kids as well as adults and you can accessorize them for the season with tree ornaments or mini village finds at your local craft store. Go to Fairytale Christmas or Miniature Christmas Garden Craze for ideas on gifts for yourself or others on DIY dish gardens or terrariums. Bringing nature in for house bound people, these are always a hit to give and receive. Set one on your desk at work in your cubicle to look at when you need a dose of green, living things.
Baking and decorating a gingerbread house every year is a tradition at my house and gingerbread house parties are a big hit with my family. Fairytale Christmas has great examples of Gingerbread creations. Storing my Gingerbread houses in plastic over the years gives me the opportunity to enjoy these all over again.
Easy to grow succulents with juicy leaves, stems, and roots have always been fascinating to me as a great architectural touchable plant. Working/crafting with them for Christmas was a natural for me and they make perfect little decorated trees that last and grow as a beautiful miniature tree. For how-to on making a succulent tree, go to Succulent Christmas.
For a different twist on terrariums, try planted succulents, inserted with white pumpkins, cymbidium orchids, ornamental balls, beaded wire, and tiny lights. A wonderful centerpiece for a holiday table or as a entrance table eye catcher.
Outdoor Fresh Arrangements
For fresh arrangements to place on your front porch to greet visitors and last for months, go to Grand Entrance to see how fast you can put together a stunner. Using a base of a pre-made evergreen wreath and other greens, you can simply push the stems into potting soil of old containers from the summer. When the weather turns freezing, the inserted stems just freeze into place and last for months. Here are some examples of fall containers that can transition into winter and can continue to greet guests for months to come.
Fresh holiday arrangements are easily whipped up in minutes after you gather the right materials for an indoor show. Holidays are a great time to force Amaryllis too. Amaryllis bulbs are inexpensive and in bloom can last for a full month of color. Go to Amaryllis Primer and Amaryllis Planter for more information on forcing these and incorporating the bulbs into arrangements.
Boxwood is the ultimate green for decorating at Christmas and the classic piece to create with boxwood is a small tree which at a nursery can set you back $75. If you have boxwood shrubs growing in your garden, trim them up and use the pieces to make a great little centerpiece. Try your hand at making this simple but beautiful classic at Boxwood-The Ultimate Green for Christmas.
Decorating the White House is every designers dream come true. I had a second chance to take part in this one of a kind volunteer event again in 2015! Read about my first time in 2011 at Decorating the White House for Christmas. Anyone can apply by going online to https://www.whitehouse.gov/, filling out the form and add a short essay with pictures of your work and by October you will find out if you made the cut. I’m sure that the White House Social Office gets thousands of applications from all over the country and it must be tough to choose the lucky people.
When I opened the acceptance email from the White House Social Office, I couldn’t believe my luck in participating again!
This season’s theme A Timeless Tradition, inspires visitors to celebrate deeply rooted Christmas traditions while also creating new memories. Combining the old with the new was the trademark this year. From my time working in 2011, the decorations just keep getting more elaborate and over the top with stunning displays of creativity. Sixty-two firs fill the White House with over 70,000 ornaments to create the magic.
Work, Work, and More Work!
It takes tons of volunteer hours to make the magic happen. I spent a week in D.C. starting on Thanksgiving evening in a hotel a couple of blocks away from the White House. Everything is at my expense- hotel, transportation, time, and most meals (the White House fed us very well at lunch). Taking on this task is a real commitment of time and money but well worth it. Everyone who accepts the challenge knows that this is a chance of a lifetime. Getting up early to meet at 6:30 AM every morning isn’t my idea of fun normally, but when you’re on a mission to decorate the White House, everyone is so psyched that you jump out of bed ready to go! Five days of decorating later, the White House treats you and a guest to an evening reception with such a fanfare of food and entertainment that you gasp as you see everything in place.
Tour of the White House-Ground Floor
A giant penguin family greets you as you enter the East Visitor Entrance. When you visit the White House, there are layers of security to go through. I had a gorgeous formal invite as a keepsake but did not need that in hand to enter. Standing in line for two plus hours until the gates opened ensured that I was close to the front of the line to get an early peek and take some memorable pictures before it gets too crowded.
As you enter the East Landing, a sea of snowflakes shimmer overhead. Each of the fifty-six states and territories are represented with a dangling snowflake suspended from chicken wire. Your wintry stroll continues along the whole length of the East Colonnade until you tear your eyes off the ceiling and glance to the left into the East Colonnade garden. There, an army of snow people gaze in at you. I stopped to take pictures of this magical constellation of unique frozen snow people with the traditional smiley faces and scarves.
Again, there are fifty-six snow people representing all the states and territories. The snow people were extremely heavy and awkward to move around in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. Redesigned in the Kennedy Administration with Littleleaf linden trees and Kennedy saucer magnolias bordered by low hedges of boxwood and American Holly, events and parties are frequently held in this semi-formal garden.
Dedicated to serving members of the military, and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, the East Landing greets you with a gorgeous tree and mailboxes. Visitors are invited to pause and send a message of thanks to our troops with the array of mailboxes and air mail envelopes. Volunteers spent many hours making garlands and wreaths out of the airmail envelopes by stuffing them with card stock and stapling them together.
East Garden Room
A place for the furry residents is next. Sunny and Bo, the First Pets, are both Portuguese Water dogs. I pet and admired the dogs during my time at the White House. The dog-themed tree, giant dog bed, tennis ball wreaths and trees were the perfect accessories for them. Constructed of over 55,000 feet of black yarn that was wound into 7,000 pom-poms, larger-than-life Sunny and Bo greeted visitors to the White House. These pom-poms were the result of many hours of work by volunteers!
The Night Before Christmas poem hung on the wall, altered to reflect the antics of the First Dogs.
Twas the holiday season inside of these walls,
And the first Dogs were prancing, playing fetch down the halls.
The First Lady was bustling with holiday cheer,
Decorating for visitors soon to be here.
Bo and Sunny were snuggled quite deep in their beds,
While visions of tennis balls danced in their heads.
So sleepy were these Portuguese Water Dogs,
The pups fell asleep much like the giant yule logs.
When out on the South Lawn there arose such a clatter,
They ran to the West Wing to see what was the matter
through the West Colonnade they both flew like a flash,
Pushed open the doors, to the Rose Garden they dashed.
They barked the alarm, but to their relief,
‘Twas the return of the Commander in Chief.
Up high in the sky they saw Marine One,
They knew what this meant-a night of great fun.
With a gleam in his eye, POTUS greeted his pets,
Knowing holidays with friends is good as it gets.
The First Lady joined them as they gazed at the snow,
What a magical moment for Sunny and Bo.
To all the guests who are headed this way,
The family sends warms wishes for the best holiday!
Containing works of fiction to first-hand accounts of important moments in our Nation’s history, books dominate the library’s walls. Gold covered books were added to the shelves to add a holiday touch and decorations placed on the tables to make the library a festive place. A holiday forest of Christmas trees were arrayed and decorated to celebrate the American story.
Displaying a collection of gold-plated silver, the Vermeil Room or sometimes known as the Gold Room, displays several First Lady portraits and contained one of the most striking Christmas displays. Patchwork stuffed teddy bears, both large and small, with beautiful shell trees and miniature scenes were whimsical and creative. Originally, the Vermeil Room was used as a staff work room for polishing silver and storage.
Used to display Presidential china in built-in cabinetry against a bright red background, the China Room is one of the most beautiful and memorable rooms in the house – without any decorations. The china collection is arranged chronologically beginning to the right of the fireplace on the east wall. A good portion of the china goes back to the early nineteenth century.
Diplomatic Reception Room
The Diplomatic Reception Room is one of three oval rooms in the White House and located next to the China Room. Used as a reception room for foreign ambassadors, the most interesting feature is that a previously unused chimney was opened up in 1935, and a new mantel and fireplace installed for Franklin Roosevelt’s famous “fireside chats.” The room has four doors leading to the Map Room, the Center Hall, the China Room, and a vestibule that leads to the South Lawn.
Next up: Entering the historic upper level of the White House -East Room, Dining Room, Red Room, Green Room, and Blue Room and the volunteer reception with the incredible gingerbread house
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Wreaths and holly berries go together like milk and cookies. The combination is a classic and McLean Nursery in Parkville, Maryland has it down to a fine art, growing all kinds of hollies since 1946. When Thanksgiving rolls around, McLean goes into full swing cutting all kinds of evergreens – boxwood, magnolias, and cedar, but in particular their specialty-holly. Bill Kuhl the owner of McLean, has many mature specimens to cut from, including American, English, and the deciduous hollies, commonly called Winterberries, or Ilex verticillata. Satyr Hill Holly, an Ilex opaca, was developed at McLean from a volunteer seedling and named Holly of the Year in 2003 by The Holly Society of America, Inc.
Starting with an evergreen base fastened to a wire form, bunches or picks of tips of evergreens, berries, and holly are added for texture and color. Last, cones, pods, and the odd vegetable are added along with a huge loopy bow. The yellow berries are especially striking on wreaths.
People know that when they buy a wreath at McLean that the greens will be freshly picked so that the wreath or arrangement will last through the holidays and beyond. The festive holly is used on almost every wreath and arrangement.
If you want to buy greens or berries to make your own arrangements, a scale weighs your selections and is priced by the pound.
Table arrangements of candle rings and boxwood trees are also made with the signature McLean style at a very reasonable price. The freshly picked beauty of the evergreens make McLean’s wreaths stand out from the crowd and people come from all over to snatch them up to decorate their doors and mantels.
After seeing Christmas centerpieces at Terrain nursery recently, combining flowering plants and greens that were over $300, I thought I could create something similar for a fraction of the cost.
I assembled my materials greens, pine cones, glitter balls, reindeer moss, budding Amaryllis in a pot, and oasis. A footed lime greenurn that I use often was the perfect piece to make the arrangement. You could use any wide-mouthed urn or planter. Place the Amaryllis into the urn and wedge oasis on all sides.
Gather your greens. I used variegated holly, magnolia, boxwood, white pine, and berried holly. Cut your greens into short lengths, about 1 foot or less for ease of working. Start inserting the greens into the oasis radiating out from the rim of the urn. I was sure to cut the oasis above the edge of the urn so you can insert the greens horizontally, rather than vertically. You want the greens to radiate outwards rather than upwards.
Fill in with the greens, covering any gaps with the colored reindeer moss. Lastly, add your large pods, pine cones, and glitter balls for accents. You could also add some glittery branches for extra pizzazz. I finished it up by arranging some beaded wire at the base of the arrangement.
Place the bulb in pot inside the urn and wedge wet oasis on all sides
Gather a variety of fresh greens
Moss, glitter balls, pods, cones
Close up of center with mosses
Cost? I already had the urn, greens from my garden, the glitter balls, oasis, and pine cones. Purchasing a large Amaryllis bulb for $16.95 and beaded wire for $4.95, were my only costs. If you had to buy the oasis, the glitter balls, moss, urn, and pine cones, you would spend another $40 to $50, still far under the cost of the one at Terrain for about 30 minutes of design work.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!!
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.
Wreaths and Things
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.
Framed Purple Hearts on Blue Room Tree
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.
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!
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.
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.