Wednesday, December 04, 2013

First Lady Michelle Obama Unveils 2013 White House Holiday Decor & Theme: "Gather Around"

East Room: The First Lady welcomes military families
Photos: Thousands of ornaments and thousands of cookies for the Obamas' fifth holiday celebration at 1600 Penn...and thousands of guests expected...
The White House - This year's holiday theme is "Gather Around: Stories of the Season," First Lady Michelle Obama announced on Wednesday afternoon as she debuted sparkling decor that features two dozen laden Christmas trees, a detailed and completely edible rendition of the White House, and Bo and Sunny  topiaries made of more than 1,000 yards of silk ribbon...with tails that actually wag. 

"We’ll be focusing on the stories behind classic American holiday traditions--traditions celebrated here at the White House and across the country," Mrs. Obama told military families gathered in the East Room, invited to be the first to see the glittery extravaganza.

"Our goal is for every room and every tree to tell a story about who we are and how we gather around one another to mark the holidays."

The First Lady wore a silver-gray nubbled silk dress with a snowflake pattern, pearls and black heels as she spoke standing in front of one of the four large Christmas trees in the room, which is dedicated to "sharing stories through art."  

The East Room features more than 120 ornaments created by volunteers, including giant cabbage roses made of gold-flecked paper and tiny silver houses, interspersed with jewel-like ornaments. 

East Room: Wreath with hand-made roses
Garlands of greens twined with the faux jewels and more golden roses were draped over the doorways and on fireplace mantels.  As in past years, many of Mrs. Obama's decor elements pay tribute to members of the Armed Forces.  

About 70,000 guests are expected to visit during the holidays, Mrs. Obama said, for tours and for special receptions and parties that President Barack Obama will host with his wife through Dec. 20th.  

One of the first Christmas trees that guests will see is in the East Wing, Mrs. Obama said.   

Decorated with red, white and blue ornaments, and red and gold ribbon, it is devoted to Gold Star families and their lost loved ones, and features star-shaped ornaments with the names of the fallen.

East Wing: Ornaments on the Gold Star tree

"This tree, graced with special Gold Star ornaments, tells the story of some of our greatest heroes:  Those who gave their lives for our country," Mrs. Obama said.

Visiting families can add their own ceramic ornaments to the tree, she said, with the names of their loved ones.  

There is a table set up beside the tree, which encourages visitors to sign a pledge to support members of the military through service projects.

Blue Room: The tree honors the military
The 18.5 foot Official White House Christmas Tree in the Blue Room, grown by Chris Botek of Lehighton, Pennsylvania, is also devoted to the military, as it has been in past years.  The oval-shaped Blue Room, located in the center of the State Floor, is "one of my favorite rooms," Mrs. Obama said, and the tree is "dedicated to the idea of gathering around our military."  

"The tree in that room is decorated with holiday greeting cards drawn by military children from bases all across the country as a way to celebrate their parents’ service," Mrs. Obama said.  

"And they’re beautiful, they’re really sweet cards."

Booksellers: Tail-wagging Bo & Sunny topiaries
The Bo and Sunny topiaries in the Booksellers are another favorite element, Mrs. Obama said.  Bo is depicted "high-fiving" his little "sister," Sunny, as both statues wag their tails. 

"I was surprised to see last night, this year they actually move," Mrs. Obama said.  

"They're mechanical.  This is a new step.  We're stepping up in the world of Bo-and-Sunny honoring."

Sunny joined the First Family in August, and is making her first appearance in the winter holiday decor after being memorialized for Halloween.  

 Booksellers: Tree of "re-purposed" books with Lincoln bust
To reinforce the First Lady's focus on storytelling, the decor also includes what the White House described as  "re-purposed books" worked into the decorations, for instance turned into a flower vase in the Library, and used to build Christmas trees around the famous bust of Abraham Lincoln in the Booksellers area, and with the Sunny and Bo topiary, which sits across from it.

"They’re very cool," Mrs. Obama said of the book trees.  

More than 450 books were used, the White House said, and these will be "donated to a local school's book drive following the holiday season."

Red Room: The hand-made vase is created from sugar paste
Mrs. Obama has made changes to White House holiday traditions, too.  "For years, the Red Room has been home to the traditional White House cranberry tree," the White House noted in its holiday guidance.  But there's no cranberry tree this year.  Instead, the Red Room features  two eight-foot Christmas trees, decorated with "berry accents" and a one-of-a kind floral arrangement that has a "vase" that is "hand-made entirely of sugar paste," the White House said.  Sugar paste is a confection used in the pastry shop for decor.

Library: The Christmas tree and a box of ornaments
83 volunteers from across the US decorated the White House beginning the day after Thanksgiving, Nov. 29, when the Blue Room tree was delivered to Mrs. Obama during a ceremony by the North Portico, arriving atop a horse-drawn carriage.

Six volunteers were from the Obamas' home state of Illinois, the White House said, while 14 were from nearby Virginia, the state with the most representatives.  

16 volunteers served in the military or were from military families, including Diane Cole, from Phoenix, Arizona, who introduced Mrs. Obama ahead of her remarks.

China Room: The tableau features handmade ornaments
The very professionally executed decor was "a group effort," said East Wing spokesman Hannah August, who added that she "didn't know" exactly who led the design planning and execution.

There was not a Hanukkah decoration anywhere in sight, though the President and Mrs. Obama will host a Hanukkah reception on Thursday evening, the last night of the holiday.  A menorah is typically loaned for the event.  

East Room: The creche and Christmas trees
There is a creche in the East Room, in between two tall Christmas trees, which has been displayed at the White House since it was given during the Johnson Administration in 1967.  Originally from Naples, Italy, the Baroque-style set features 44 terra cotta and wood figurines, some more than 300 years old, according to the White House.

Also missing from the decor are Santa and his elves, though the mansion is laden with garlands of greens filled with ornaments and lights, baskets of ornaments placed at strategic locations, and special wreaths and decorative glass in the many windows.  The words "Gather Around" are scripted on ornaments, and worked into the overall scheme.

The First Family has their own Christmas tree, #25, in the residence, which they decorated themselves, Mrs. Obama told Ladies' Home Journal

State Dining Room: Yosses & Morrison & the holiday house
Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses' elaborate and very detailed edible White House Gingerbread House also fits nicely with the First Lady's theme, though it barely qualifies as "gingerbread."  It is a North Portico view, and made of a hardened bread dough that includes rye flour, Yosses said.


In past years, the holiday house was displayed on a console table in the State Dining Room.  But this year it is atop an edible fireplace, built from more than 1,200 Springerle cookies, a traditional flat cookie that is baked in a square mold.

More than 1,200 cookies create the fireplace
Gathering around the hearth is the theme, with the fireplace itself meant to recall President Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats, Yosses said.

The bricks on the inside of the fireplace are the only actual gingerbread on the entire structure, which weighs about 300 pounds, Yosses said.

The "tiles" surrounding the fireplace feature sugar transfers taken from the actual tiles that were on Roosevelt's fireplace in the White House library (which was removed in a later renovation, and sent to his home in Hyde Park, New York).  The Roosevelt Presidential Library gave Yosses the images for the tiles, he said.

The sugar transfer process was also used for images in each window of the house, taken from real photos of White House staffers.

Bo and Sunny with blown-sugar trees
The house also features Bo and Sunny, made of chocolate--they'd be about one story tall, in real life--and blown sugar Christmas trees, including two laden with sugar ornaments, all made by Assistant Pastry Chef Susie Morrison.

There's also a real working fountain with water bubbling up, just like on the North Lawn, and working lights.   Missing this year is a replica of Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden, which has been featured on Yosses' four previous holiday houses for the Obamas.  But there are honey bees and beehives on some of the Springerle tiles.

"That's where we pay homage to the garden--with the bees," Yosses said.

Yosses said he used between five and ten pounds of honey harvested from the real White House beehive to make the house.  It was a team effort, and took weeks to make, Yosses said; his entire crew and of course staff from the engineering department were involved, for the running water and working lights.

Mrs. Obama with Chef Comerford & kids
After her remarks, Mrs. Obama invited the kids to the State Dining Room for a holiday arts and crafts session.  At three separate tables, Yosses, Executive Chef Cris Comerford and her team and chief Floral Designer Laura Dowling led the kids in creating gifts.

At Yosses' table, the kids decorated Springerle cookies (the recipe is here), while Comerford showed the kids how to make dough wreaths decorated with dried fruit (the recipe is here).  

Dowling demonstrated how to make "Bo-quets," paper poinsettias named for the First Dog (the instructions are here).

Mrs. Obama & Sunny with Ashtyn Gardner
The craft session featured a headline-making incident with a two-year-old, after Sunny and Bo were led into the State Dining Room, both on leashes.  Celebrating her first White House Christmas, Sunny was about as excited as the invited kids, who were clad in finery, with the girls in hair bows and gauzy party dresses, and the boys in little suits.  

While Sunny's leash was held by the First Lady, the exuberant 18-month-old Portuguese Water Dog knocked down two-year-old Ashtyn Gardner.  The golden-haired child fell straight to the floor.  

Mrs. Obama, gasping, pulled Sunny back, lifting her onto her hind legs, and then helped Ashtyn get back on her feet.  The child was completely fine, dad John Gardner later assured reporters, so much so that he took smartphone photos of his tiny daughter getting hugged by Mrs. Obama after the incident.

A member of the military, Gardner is from Mobile, Alabama, and currently stationed in Virginia, he said.  His wife and two other children were also at the event; the day marked the first birthday for Gardner's youngest.  

The Sunny knockdown will no doubt become family legend, fitting perfectly with Mrs. Obama's theme of gathering around and telling stories. 

Mrs. Obama bids a young guest farewell
Before she left, Mrs. Obama gave the other kids hugs, and also posed for photos.

"Have a happy holiday, from my family to all of yours," Mrs. Obama said.  "Be safe, be happy.  And gather round together, and remember what this is all about. You all, take care.  Love you much."  


*The transcript of the First Lady's remarks.

*Download The White House Holiday Tour Book {PDF}, an illustrated guide to the decor.

*CLICK HERE for links to all holiday posts.  

*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama