The holiday season is in full swing at the White House, on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled the White House decorations and the official holiday theme, "Gather Around: Stories of the Season," to the press in the White House East Room. The First Lady also held the first holiday reception of the season, a party for military families at the White House to celebrate the holiday, which included crafts for the children. However, the party was not without a hitch, when first puppy, Sunny came to greet the children she became overly excited, knocking over a two-year old child who was excited to meet the White House pets. The holiday decorations preview is an annual tradition, throughout the holiday season over 70,000 guests will pass through the White House.
The White House holiday page describes the decorations, the theme and its meaning; "This year's theme is 'Gather Around.' It celebrates the stories and traditions that bring us together this special time of year. As members of one American family, we are united in a story built over the course of two centuries. The holidays serve as an opportunity to recall our Nation's journey, reflect on our blessings, and to remember those who serve and sacrifice for our freedoms. It's a season when each of us can do our part to care for one another."
The First Lady previewed the decorations to the press and then hosted a reception for military families. Michelle Obama began the event by delivering some remarks about this year's holiday theme, and the particular decorations that correspond with the theme. The First Lady thanked the 83 volunteers who worked diligently to set up all the decorations, followed by an extensive acknowledgement of American military families, who much of the holiday decorations are dedicated to and were the guests of honor at the opening reception. Michelle Obama heads the Joining Forces initiative with Second Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, which supports veterans and military families.
Then Mrs. Obama described the decorations in each of the rooms, as the First Lady explained; "And that actually brings me to this year's official White House holiday theme, which is "Gather Around: Stories of the Season." This holiday season, we'll be focusing on the stories behind classic American holiday traditions -- traditions celebrated here at the White House and across the country. 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 extensively explained that the decorations serve as a tribute to members of the military; "When visitors arrive, the very first thing they'll see is a tree decorated to pay tribute to our Armed Forces. 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." And "the Blue Room, one of my favorite rooms -- dedicated to the idea of gathering around our military," which features the Official White House Christmas Tree.
Despite the extensive honors to the military, Mrs. Obama reinforced that veterans and service members should be acknowledged and honored year round for the contributions not just during the holidays; "So that's how we'll be honoring our veterans and servicemembers and their families this holiday season. And I would ask during this time that every American find a way to honor these great Americans, not just during the holidays, but every day. And let us never forget the debt that we owe these men and women and their amazing families."
Not only are some this year's White House decorations filled with tributes to members of the military and their families, but also include some lighter creative fare, as well as the usual time honored traditions of in White House Christmas decorating and those particular to the Obama White House. This year books were used extensively, including making Christmas trees from stacks of books in the East Garden Room, while the Cross Hall has Christmas trees "reflecting the idea of gathering around our heritage" filled with "ornaments representing great American sites like the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore, and there's some silhouettes of people you might know today in history."
No White House holiday decorations would be complete without the large "300 pound" gingerbread replica of the White House or the tribute to the residential presidential pets, with Bo and this year new puppy and little sister Sunny a major highlight and addition to the Christmas decorations. Mrs. Obama described the Bo and Sunny display and replicas; "this year they actually move. They're mechanical. This is a new step. We're stepping up in the world of Bo-and-Sunny honoring." Beside the large replicas, small models of the presidential pups in chocolate and as cookies appear all throughout the decorations.
The First Lady told the audienmce the best part about the holiday season at the White House is not the decorations, but the children who visit the White House; "Although people who visit the White House will see dozens of trees and wreaths… some of the best sights they'll see are kids enjoying all of this just wonderful glory. Some of the best times in this White House is just watching the faces of kids as they walk through this house and count the trees and look at the ornaments."
At the reception after the press preview both military families and the presidential pooches took center stage. The reception for military families was the first one of the holiday season kicking off three weeks of holiday celebrations. Because military members and their families were being honored this holiday season and are so central to the decorations, they were also the first invited to view them. The First Lady expressed; "And truly, it is a treat to make you all the first every season, because you all do so much for us. And we are so proud and so honored and so grateful. And we just want to give you a chance to bring your families in to just get a little special something just to remind you just how special we all think you are."
While the adults enjoyed cider, cookies and "looking at the ornaments," the children were treated to activities including making a "fruit wreath and a Bo-quet paper poinsettia." The children also were to a surprise they were able to meet the real presidential pups Bo and Sunny. Both the children and the dogs were excited for the meeting maybe a little too excited. Bo is a veteran and professional at White House greetings, having met thousands in White House tours and Christmas receptions over the last five years.
For new puppy Sunny however, the whole experience was new and exciting. When Sunny ran to greet and the equally excited Ashtyn Gardner, a two-year old from Mobile, Alabama it was too much, and the larger, but gentle Sunny by accident knocked over Ashtyn to the floor. A hug from the First Lady made everything better, and within a few minutes and Ashtyn was hugging her new friend Sunny. The little mishap was probably the most remembered, talked about and covered part of the Christmas decorations preview by the press.
The tradition of thematic Christmas decorations began with John F. Kennedy's White House in the 1960s "when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy created a nutcracker-themed Christmas for her daughter Caroline." The White House will host about two receptions each day during the holiday season until Dec. 21 with 70,000 visitors viewing this year's Christmas themed decorations. The Obamas however will not be staying in the White House for the holidays themselves; they will make their sixth annual trek to Hawaii, for a much warmer Christmas and New Year's.
WHITE HOUSE HOLIDAY DECORATIONS FACTS
Adapted from: The White House
- From the day after Thanksgiving, 83 volunteers from 33 states and the District Columbia, and 16 volunteers from military families worked to decorate the White House.
- The Blue Room features the Official White House Christmas Tree which is "18 ½ feet high and is nearly 11 feet wide."
- There are 24 Christmas trees decorating the White House's main floor and 2000 ornaments.
- Mixed throughout the decorations are over 450 "repurposed books," some used to make book Christmas trees, they will all be donated afterwards to school book drives.
- The large replicas of first pups, Bo and Sunny were made from nearly "1,000 yards of satin ribbon."
- The gingerbread fireplace adorning the State Dining Room was made from "1,200 Springerle cookies."
- The White House Replica also in the State Dining Room was made from "300 lbs. of bread dough."
- Information on White House Christmas 2013, Dec. 4, 2013
- Holidays at the White House 2013: History|Interactive Tour|West Wing Tour|Video Series|Décor and Art|Holidays
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.