Deciphering the White House decorations has become an annual holiday rite. With the president's list of woes, who can blame the Executive Elves for helping themselves to an abundance of crystal balls.

No official count could be obtained, but hundreds of the clear orbs dangled into view yesterday, as first lady Laura Bush led reporters on a tour of the Blue Room.

"The Christmas tree is always the centerpiece," she said.

Her focus was on the delicate blossoms adorning the branches of the official White House Christmas tree, an 181/2-foot Fraser fir from North Carolina. But crystal balls are as numerous and as big as the giant white Rio Blanco lilies posed in water-filled test tubes. Hundreds of smaller globes are strung like popcorn from top to bottom.

Mrs. Bush took two questions. Her first response gave people permission to call a Christmas tree a Christmas tree.

"At this season, we know Americans celebrate in many different ways," she said. "We've always had a Christmas tree."

The White House will hold a Hanukkah celebration later this month, she added.

The second question had to do with the overall ambiance, which the first lady contends is "simpler this year."

Yes and no. There are fewer trees but still enough bling to justify a luxury tax.

"Every year I think it's the prettiest year," she said, "but this year I really do think it's the prettiest year. And I think it shows how elegant the White House is."

The official theme is "All Things Bright and Beautiful." The first lady leaked it two days early. But the president's right flank, not to mention ally Tony Blair, may appreciate the choice of a 19th-century English hymn that became the title of Yorkshire veterinarian James Herriot's beloved book.

Mrs. Bush said the line inspired the use of fresh flowers and fruits and garlands to show "how beautiful nature is and how many things we can use from our own gardens or woods" for Christmas decorations.

The White House calculates there are 580 feet of boxwood garlands, almost every inch laced with crystals and twinkling lights, and 204 boxwood wreaths tied with lime-green ribbon backed with gold lame. White House gardeners did not clip from historic bushes. An unnamed supplier in Florida received the commission to make and ship the swags and wreaths.

"On this scale, we could not make these," said Nancy Clarke, chief florist, who worked with staff and 63 volunteers from across the country to finish the decorations in time for the press preview.

Greens in the entry foyer are hung modestly with ripening fruit. (Staffers will throw out any bad apples.) The State Dining Room is more glamorous. The buffet table supports topiary trees, layered with tangerines and lemon leaves, that rise from silver punch bowls. Several hundred apricot-hued tulips are massed in a silver chalice inscribed to Laura Bush from Anne and John Marion. She, a Fort Worth collector and investor, and he, the honorary chairman of Sotheby's North America, were guests at the White House for the dinner for Prince Charles and Camilla.

Abe Lincoln's gilt-framed portrait is surrounded by a swag of boxwood strewn with gold balls and wrapped with strands of chunky amber beads elaborate enough to don with a ball gown.

In the East Room, two firs are bedecked with fuchsia Hot Lady roses, squeezed three to a bud vase. Lime-green glass balls and strings of faux crystal sparkle amid tiny white lights. Mirrors multiply the chandeliers as well as the extravagant crystal candelabra on the mantels, where more Hot Lady roses have been massed into topiary balls.

"We're going to have to change them out every few days," Mrs. Bush said.

The tangerine, lime and hot pink hues seem to have forced another change. Mrs. Bush avoided a potential clash of colors in photographs by switching from her usual Santa Red suit -- a different one each year, but always crimson. Instead she wore a Carolina Herrera ensemble. She almost faded out in the distressingly pale persimmon.

The White House will host 26 celebrations over 21 days for 9,500 guests, staff and family.

"This is always a very, very happy time here at the White House," Mrs. Bush said.

Guests will sample the holiday menus prepared by Cristeta Comerford, who was named executive chef in August. The buffet Comerford prepared yesterday demonstrated an interest in fusion, with Maryland crab cakes topped by lime-ancho chili remoulade and Thai peanut chicken skewers with cilantro dipping sauce. The pastry kitchen is prepared to turn out 30,000 Christmas cookies.

Tours have been limited in the aftermath of 9/11. But 45,000 visitors have snagged reservations through their congressional representatives. Tours are fully booked. Visitors will be offered a souvenir booklet by Donna Green, a children's book illustrator from Cohasset Village, Mass.

Veteran holiday observers will recall Bush Christmases past, which began with a Texas-size blizzard of 800 pounds of artificial snow on 49 spruce trees.

The first lady and her staff managed an upbeat tour de force in 2002, inspired by "All Creatures Great and Small," from the same hymn and another Herriot book title. Papier-mache pets created in the White House workshop made charming displays on the mantels, and Barney, the Bushes' Scottish terrier, was outfitted with a minicam to provide a dog's-eye view of the decorations for the Web.

Childhood has given way to adult sparkle this year. Barney and the other family pets make an appearance as dark chocolate on the lawn of pastry chef Thaddeus DuBois's gingerbread White House. His second annual construction weighs in at 100 pounds of gingerbread and 150 pounds of chocolate. DuBois rendered the mansion's architectural details with impressive accuracy, down to a tiny garland over the North Portico door.

HGTV filmed the past two days of preparations for a special that will air Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. That may be the public's next-best view.

Hot Lady roses on an East Room mantel. This year's theme is "All Things Bright and Beautiful."

Laura Bush with pastry chef Thaddeus DuBois's gingerbread White House, which includes 150 pounds of chocolate.

In the Blue Room, the official tree, an 181/2-foot Fraser fir, sparkles with crystal balls and glass tubes holding giant Rio Blanco lilies.Among this year's decorations are Barney-inspired cookies.