Where season's joy isn't lone renewable resource

The White House prepares for the holiday season with extravagant decorations, a charitable initiative and edible landmarks.
By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 3, 2009

This Christmas the Obamas, like other frugal families, scoured their yard and closets for help in holiday decorating. At Wednesday's White House holiday preview, first lady Michelle Obama announced that the theme for Christmas at the White House 2009 was "Reflect, Rejoice, Renew." Renewing was most in evidence, with lots of environmentally friendly touches and LED lights.

"We decided to do something just a little different," Obama, in a green sleeveless dress, green drop earrings and shiny bronze heels, told the crowd gathered for the press unveiling.

So, for the 18 1/2 -foot Blue Room tree, 800 ornaments from previous administrations were unearthed from storage warehouses and sent to 60 community groups across the country to be "refurbished" in honor of local landmarks. And the East Wing and residence staff, and 92 volunteers who spent last weekend dressing up the White House rooms, incorporated lots of natural materials, including dried hydrangeas previously used in floral arrangements.

They even harvested "dried root materials" from the White House kitchen garden on the South Lawn for tree and wreath trimming. Speaking of the garden, this year's 400-pound gingerbread house, constructed by White House pastry chef Bill Yosses and his team over six weeks, includes a garden with tiny marzipan carrots and cabbages.

While Bo, the Obama family Portuguese water dog, was depicted in front of the gingerbread house, Bo did not choose to star in his own White House holiday video, as the Bushes' Scottish terrier did in the ongoing series Barney Cam.

The preview seemed more scripted than in Christmases past, and the number of trees and embellishments scaled down. For their first holiday season at the White House, the Obamas decided to go the classic route with trees, wreaths and swags decorated with natural materials to reflect the architecture and color palette of each room.

The romantic, lush style of new White House florist Laura Dowling was evident in the East Room, in which greens, berries and hydrangeas were arranged in tall vases wrapped in birch bark. In the Red Room, thick swags of pepperberries draped the mantels; in the State Dining Room, two Fraser firs were bedecked with natural pods, honeysuckle and sugar pine cones. Four dozen wreaths of magnolia leaves, painted red, festooned the East Colonnade.

This holiday season, more than 50,000 guests at 17 holiday parties and 11 open houses will get to see the decorations. But don't even think of showing up unless you're really, really sure you've been invited. As an e-mail from the first lady's office stated: "Social office staff will be present to continue to assist guests and the United States Secret Service should any confusion arise. As always, the United States Secret Service will provide security and will control who has access to the White House grounds."

New York's Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York, flew in a few days ago to help with the decorating. And although the blogosphere had been awash in predictions of what frills the inventive Doonan would scatter throughout the executive mansion, his role was never clarified by White House officials. (We can't imagine he was gluing pine cones on the topiaries.)

The Obamas are not the only first family to recycle during holiday time. Hillary Clinton, who was known for her bejeweled holiday pins, selected highlights from the 10,000 ornaments commissioned during the two Clinton administrations for a reprise at their last Christmas at the White House. Laura Bush sometimes dusted off ornaments from prior years to reuse.

Michelle Obama announced two outreach efforts the White House would highlight this holiday season. It is working to combat hunger through local food banks and is supporting the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program. "The president and I are urging everyone to join us in these efforts or to find some way to give back some time during this holiday season," she said.

And what of the Obamas' own holiday traditions? All we know is that the first family is expected to visit Hawaii over the holidays, as they often do.

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