By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Thousands of children gathered at the White House yesterday for the first Easter Egg Roll of the Obama administration, an event with a 131-year tradition that opened its gates to the largest crowd ever.
Presided over by President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, the 2009 Easter Egg Roll revolved around the traditional race that has children pushing -- and in some cases flinging -- decorated eggs across an expanse of White House lawn using large cooking spoons.
It was the day when thousands of people get the chance to stand on the White House grounds, as Obama noted: "This is one of the greatest White House traditions because it reminds us that this is the people's house."
This year's event featured musical performances by pop star Fergie, Ziggy Marley and the D.C. Youth Orchestra as well as appearances by beloved children's characters including Clifford the Big Red Dog, and, of course, the Easter Bunny.
After Fergie sang the national anthem, Obama and his family welcomed people to the White House from a balcony overlooking the South Lawn.
"Our goal today is just to have fun," Michelle Obama told the crowd. But she followed that up with a message, the theme of this year's event.
"We want to focus on activity, healthy eating," she said. "We've got yoga, we've got dancing, we've got storytelling, we've got Easter egg decorating. Oh, we've got basketball, a little soccer as well. And we want everybody to think about moving their bodies."
Afterward, the first lady and the president joined the children for some play.
In one heat of the egg roll races, the president stepped in to help a straggling toddler, who tossed and flung her egg more than she pushed it. The Obamas' daughters, Malia and Sasha, gently pushed their eggs along, holding back to let the younger children win their race. The Obamas and the first lady's mother, Marian Robinson, read stories to children, and the president later shot hoops with young guests on the White House court.
There was also a kids' kitchen, where White House and guest chefs taught children how to make simple, healthy snacks.
The event is rooted in Washington's oldest rivalry. In 1878, President Rutherford B. Hayes, flouting Congress, allowed children on the White House lawn to roll eggs after lawmakers passed a bill forbidding youngsters from playing on the Capitol lawn, which they had trashed in years past.
This year, free tickets for the event were issued to 30,000 people from 45 states. Some were given to local schoolchildren, and others were released in batches online one day last month. Many parents complained after having spent much of that day on the White House Web site trying to get tickets without success.
The White House allocated some tickets for gay and lesbian parents. Three years ago, many of those parents stood in line overnight for tickets when they attended the egg roll en masse, with the goal of presenting a realistic mosaic of American families.
This year's record crowd, about 10,000 larger than in recent years, was allowed on the grounds in waves of 6,000 to ease the crush.
For the first egg rollers, who were admitted just after dawn, it was a tough morning.
To get to the White House in time for their 7 a.m. admission, Mary Ann and Raymond Devera woke up at 5 a.m. Raymond, a 5-year-old D.C. prekindergarten student, yawned as he related the highlight of his trip to the egg roll: "I hit the egg with the spoon -- hard!" he said. "It cracked."
Dozens of children -- pink crinolines sullied, once-shiny shoes scuffed -- fell asleep in their strollers, exhausted from the early wake-up call.
Jaylen Odemns, 4, slept on the bus as he and his mom rode in the early morning darkness. "I wish I got to see Obama and the girls," said his mother, Ericka Odemns of the District. "But it was so beautiful. I work right over there on 18th Street, in the Department of the Interior mailroom.
"I walk by here every day," said Odemns, who got tickets from her son's school. "I never thought I'd get in."
Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.