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What It Takes to Transform the White House for the Holidays

What It Takes to Transform the White House for the Holidays


The 300 volunteers were divided into eight teams, each named for a different Santa’s reindeer.

On the day after Thanksgiving, while the Bidens were still in Nantucket, the teams descended upon the White House, working through the weekend to festoon the halls with hand-pinned gumdrops, shape chicken wire into bough-covered arches, install crystal-studded nutcrackers on mantels, and hang a papier-mâché set of reindeer that soar above the Cross Hall and Grand Foyer.

The transformation — praised by Jill Biden, the first lady, as a result of “hard work and painstaking attention to detail” by the droves of volunteers — resulted in a holiday-themed White House overflowing with historical touches.

No matter the administration, turning the White House complex into a wonderland is a feat that relies on donated materials and the time of volunteers. Even the Oval Office gets decorated.

Here are a few numbers behind this year’s display.

When planning began this spring, Dr. Biden told her team that she wanted visitors to experience the décor through the eyes of a child.

“Children are unbound by time and inherently know beauty,” she said this week as she unveiled the decorations. “It’s this childlike marvel and awe that inspired this year’s holiday theme: the ‘Magic, Wonder, and Joy’ of the season.”

The décor includes a large train that circles the official White House Christmas Tree, an 18-foot Fraser fir, in the Blue Room, and countless papier-mâché ballerinas. On the ground floor, a display houses early editions of “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” the poem also known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” on loan from the Library of Congress. Another display houses more recent books, one printed in Spanish, that share the same theme.

The poem also serves as the inspiration behind this year’s 300-pound gingerbread White House and the Santa’s sleigh scene. (Special scaffolding was built to suspend the sleigh, in order to not drill into the building.) In the crafts-themed Red Room upstairs, family portraits drawn by children in military families hang from trees strung with yarn-popcorn garlands.

Dr. Biden’s two younger sisters, who are twins named Kim and Kelly, were a part of the decorating crew this year. Volunteers signed up beginning in August and their duties included stringing up 500 letters to Santa (and the Bidens) in the ground floor corridor.

“Please bring me a dinosaur. I love you!” reads one letter addressed to Santa and Mrs. Claus.

After the Bidens leave to spend Christmas Day at Camp David — they are opting to spend it there instead of at the White House for the first time since President Biden took office — a smaller team of 75 volunteers and White House staff will spend about two days taking down the decorations, according to the East Wing.

This is a lot of wattage, but there are a lot of trees.

The first tree that guests will encounter is a large Fraser fir dedicated to Gold Star families, those whose relatives have died as a result of their active-duty military service. There are 97 other trees throughout the complex, including two huge ones with advent calendar themes in the East Room.

Former first ladies are highlighted in the ground-floor Vermeil Room, devoted to gilded silver. A white-lit tree illuminates a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy and, across the room, a garland decorated with white lights and tiny ballerinas hangs under a portrait of Lady Bird Johnson.

A number of portraits of other first ladies, including that of Michelle Obama, are decorated with red-and-white amaryllis lilies. (Mrs. Obama’s display is also decorated with candy jars.) A more somber display can be found nearby in the ground floor corridor, where a portrait of Rosalynn Carter, who died last month, is draped in black.

It takes a team of chefs about three weeks to assemble the creation, according to the East Wing. The 300-pounder requires 40 sheets of sugar cookie dough, 40 sheets of gingerbread dough, 90 pounds of pastillage (sugar paste), 30 pounds of chocolate and 50 pounds of royal icing. Elizabeth Alexander, the first lady’s communications director, did not immediately answer a question about whether anyone ever takes a bite out of the house, but she did note that the structure is entirely edible except for the lights.

The official White House menorah, which is one year old, sits in the Cross Hall. It was created by White House carpenters and uses wood from a 1950 renovation of the White House.

There is also a 50-by-70-foot ice rink installed on the South Lawn. The White House says that children of military members and from local schools will be invited to skate this year.

Public tours are arranged through the congressional offices of each visitor’s home state or territory. The White House is also offering virtual tours.

Speaking of politics, the White House holiday decorations are often parsed — and politicized — by observers, who search for subtext in every choice. (Remember the blood-red trees of Melania Trump, the former first lady?)

This year, as she previewed the décor, Dr. Biden nodded to “tumultuous times” outside the gates and said she hoped the transformation of the White House could pierce the difficulties, if only briefly.

“It’s in these times when we are searching for hope and healing, these points of light — all of them — you know, that the most that we need is each other,” she said.



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