Volunteering at the White House for Christmas is a bucket list item for many people, and I have posted on this blog about how to apply and the best way to get accepted at Decorating the White House 2015. I have participated twice, in 2011 and 2015, and to my delight discovered others have applied after reading about my experiences and been accepted.
How to Apply to The White House
Work on the White House decorations starts at least six months in advance by designers at Rafanelli Events and consulting with Michelle Obama via sketches and concepts for each room. During the preceding summer volunteers can apply online from April to August to decorate the White House by going to WhiteHouse.gov. Learning if you make the cut in October, there are about 85 to 90 people across the country selected to take part. Explaining why you want to volunteer in a short essay and sending pictures of your work are requirements on the application.
As a volunteer you do not receive any compensation and you pay your hotel, transportation, and most meal costs for a week after Thanksgiving, so this isn’t an inexpensive proposition. But the experience of working at The White House is exhilarating and so much fun, that everyone is really excited, even if you are just wiring up ornaments and moving boxes!
I have applied every year since 2010, and been accepted twice in that time and each time I decorated has been different. It seems that each year, the decorations get glittzier and more elaborate. But I see many ornaments and props being reused and only ten percent are new this year. Even re-purposed things like the snowmen that sat outside in 2015 are lining the Lower Cross Hall this year.
Since I was not accepted this year, some of my pictures are from Mandy Barkley who worked at The White House last year and did all the mantels this year, and Linda Vodney who was accepted for the first time and decorated the Cross Hall of the White House this year.
For a great article and more pictures of this last Christmas for the Obamas, themed “The Gift of the Holidays”, go to Daily Mail.
The mantel below in the Vermeil Room, which has seven First Lady portraits on the soft yellow walls and features a collection of “vermeil”, which are gilded silver items or “dipped in gold”, glows with pinks and yellows and a ballerina theme. The colors complement the beauty of the Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson portraits that are among the First Lady’s portraits in the room.
Volunteers with a love of decorating are accepted every year, but it helps if you have floral/interior design experience or people-centered work, like volunteering, teaching or nursing. I have worked with lots of people at the White House who were teachers or people in the education field and Gold Star mothers. Regardless, you work with a cross-section of people from all walks of life and all age ranges.
A Little History
Working in the White House which is a “living museum”, is so interesting that you realize the tremendous stories and history of the place. Just glancing around, you are surrounded by hints of what took place in the past. When I spotted the gorgeous full length portrait of Grace Coolidge, I was intrigued and was inspired to find out more about this remarkable woman. The wife of Calvin Coolidge, President from 1923-29, she was voted as one of the 12 most remarkable living women of 1931. One of the most popular hostesses of the White House, she adored her white collies and Rob Roy was the first dog that appeared in an official White House portrait. She even kept a pet raccoon at the White House briefly!
Tragically on June 30, 1924, sixteen-year old Cal, one of Grace’s boys, played tennis on the White House courts, and developed a blister on his toe which became infected. Blood poisoning set in. In a day before antibiotics would have cleared his system of the spreading infection, Cal died at Walter Reed within a week.
Another nugget that I uncovered about Grace, was her famous meeting with Helen Keller and companion Anne Sullivan in a silent newsreel clip. Fascinating stuff from looking at a White House portrait!
Constructed by the White House pastry chef, the gingerbread house is always my favorite decoration. A tradition started in 1969, it seems that each year, it becomes more elaborate and detailed.
The gingerbread house in 2015 was again modeled after the White House and designed by Executive Pastry Chef Susan Morrison, and made with 250 pounds of gingerbread, 150 pounds of chocolate and another 75 pounds of sugar and gum paste. Covered with dark chocolate, this whopper weighed in at almost 500 pounds! This 2016 season’s house, created also by Pastry Chef Susan Morrison, is made of 150 pounds of gingerbread, 100 pounds of bread dough, 20 pounds of gum paste, 20 pounds of icing, and 20 pounds of sculpted sugar pieces.
This year’s theme, ‘The Gift of the Holidays,’ was chosen to reflect the joy of giving and receiving, along with such gifts as service, friends, family, education and good health. For the official White House tour book for an explanation of each decorated room, go to 2016 White House Tourbook which everyone gets a copy of when touring the White House.
A volunteer reception is held at the conclusion of all your decorating efforts on the last evening and you get a formal invitation from the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Allowed to bring one person with you to see the “big reveal”, which is the culmination of all the decorators hard work in its full glory at night is a huge treat.
Next year I will apply again with the new administration. It will be interesting to see what happens!
I am always interested in what my readers are reading and using from my blog and sometimes I’m surprised. Blogging for four years means I have gotten a little better about what people are clicking on and what gets the gardening juices flowing. Looking at my archives and statistics, I see a variety of topics that are capturing people’s interests. Perennial(!) or evergreen blogs that capture readers interest turn up again and again and I re-blog them with better photos and updated writing. Maybe I need to write a book using one of these topics!
The Garden Diaries blog was viewed over 110,000 times in 2015 with 58 posts and I have regular thoughtful comments from people. Thanks for all those comments! Keep them coming. Feedback and questions are welcome and help me become a better writer. Readers from over 166 countries read my blog. That just blows my mind! My most commented post was Plant Geek Alert-Pink Zazzle Gomphrena. Lots of interest in this plant and I continue to grow and love it.
My most controversial blog was on Butterfly Bushes-Should you plant these? Or not? Picked up by Garden Rant it received lots of comments good and bad.
Yes, you read that right! This post from March 2013 has had an awesome 16, 649 readers this year alone. Picked up by different Home and Garden sites and one called “Woohome” that has funneled thousands of readers to my site bumps this post to the top of the heap. You can read it at Broken Pot Garden if you haven’t seen it yet.
One other post which is right up there with “Gnome Home”, with 16,605 readers is my container post “Containers With Pizzazz: Not Your Ordinary Container”. I have refined this post over the years, adding new pictures and techniques to create containers which stand out from the crowd.
Whenever I do talks on beekeeping, this is the number one question that I get-Why do bees swarm? So, no surprise here with this being a top post. “Wrangling” swarms is something I do every spring and is fascinating and fun. Honey extraction is another beekeeping topic that people can’t get enough of at Extracting the Flavor of the Year-Honey.
Surprise, surprise! I had no idea until I started reading my stats, that this was a top 5! Easy to make with a few ingredients, honey is the unexpected ingredient to make a wonderful soothing body balm.
People love miniature gardens! The above mini garden I photographed at the Philadelphia Flower Show and the purple splashes of color and attention to detail makes it stand out for me. Read how to put one together for yourself.
Other Top Posts
Thanks to all my readers who are just visiting or follow my blog. Here’s to another “fruitful” and bee sting free year in 2016.
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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