WASHINGTON — The holidays at the White House this year brought the front door down.
At Wednesday’s preview of the 2014 White House decorations for military families, Michelle Obama confessed that the 18-foot-tall, 12-foot-wide Blue Room fir barely made it inside to be trimmed with 2,000 ornaments, many made by military children.
“Have you guys seen the biggest, hugest tree? Have you seen it? I think this is the biggest tree we’ve had,” Obama said to her 140 guests in the East Room. “We’ve got a tree that was so big that we had to take the hinges off of the front door and take the doors off — literally — just to get this tree in,” she added.
Now that the door is securely back on, the Obamas are set to welcome some 65,000 visitors to the White House during the 2014 holiday season. Those visitors will get to see the 420-pound gingerbread White House, the 26 trees that are set up around the tour route and the boxwood trellises and garlanded mantels.
While cool, techy touches such as the interactive digital snowscape and the animated replicas of first dogs Bo and Sunny got plenty of buzz, the handmade, more traditional decorations this year were looking particularly sparkly and glamorous. The theme “A Children’s Winter Wonderland” clearly brought out the glue guns and gallons of glitter. The Grand Foyer and Cross Hall had suspended snowflake and star ornaments and trees decorated with hanging-glass ornaments. Vintage luggage was stacked in front of the windows of the State Dining Room and dusted with silvery white glitter. Outside in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, a huge, mirrored gift box reflected the light.
In the Vermeil Room, where portraits of several first ladies hang, volunteers took two dress mannequins and created evergreen skirts to look like ball gowns, then embellished them with frosted decorations and lights. New York designer Alexis Bittar, whose jewelry has been worn by Michelle Obama, created ornaments and necklaces for the installation, including hand-sculpted designs made of Lucite ivory pine cones interwoven with vintage brooches.
One of the volunteer decorators, part of a team of 106 people who worked for five days, was Frank Champa from Brooks, Maine, who happens to be a costume designer.
“The first lady wanted to do something different here,” Champa said. He found the whole experience amazing. “My grandfather was a florist in the White House,” Champa said. “It was just surreal to be here. I actually sat down and cried a little.”
Obama, dressed in an eggplant-colored dress and glittery necklace, thanked the troops, veterans, wounded warriors and military spouses, saying that “your presence here today is a powerful reminder for all of us what this season is really all about” and rousing the audience with her prepared remarks. “It’s really about serving others,” she said. “It’s about giving more than we receive, and it’s about showing those we love how much they mean to us.”
The children at the event knew it’s also about something else.
“Are you guys ready to get up and move?” the first lady said to her young guests. “You’re going to come with me; we’re going to do some decorating. We’ve got the stuff — I think we may have cookies or something.” (“Yay!” yelled one bold child.) And with that, Obama was off to the State Dining Room with girls in full-skirted party dresses, boys in red wool vests and toddlers clutching sippy cups trailing behind her. Here, they would have their own taste of the DIY movement supervised by three experienced crafters: White House chief floral designer Laura Dowling, executive chef Cristeta Comerford and new executive pastry chef Susan Morrison. The children moved right to their tasks: cookies to drench in frosting, snowflake ornaments to dust with colored salts and Bo and Sunny coloring books to fill in.
Whereas Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush would often take questions from reporters at the preview regarding where they were spending their holidays or what their family traditions were, Obama has stuck to a scripted program in each of her six years hosting this preview.
Each first lady puts her own stamp on the decorations. In the 1990s, Clinton didn’t have any tech surprises, but she did round up a roster of design celebrities to help with the decorating: Martha Stewart, Christopher Radko, Ralph Lauren’s creative stylists and Robert Isabell, the New York party planner and flower designer who died in 2009. Bush brought us LED lights and Barney Cam, a popular series of holiday videos starring the photogenic Scottish terrier as he romped through the White House.
The Obamas may not be sharing any information about their holiday plans, but they have posted the first interactive White House holiday card, available to anyone at whitehouse.gov. Can’t make it to the White House for the holidays? Check out #WHHolidays or follow them on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest.