As has become the tradition, Bo Obama, the first family’s Portuguese water dog, is the star of this year’s White House holiday decorations, and surely every child in this land would agree that this is as it should be.
When first lady Michelle Obama unveiled the trees and topiaries, baubles and geegaws, zipper art and glittering pine cones during a Wednesday afternoon ceremony in the East Room, in front of an invited audience of military families, all the glittering holiday cheer was greeted with happy applause and admiring eyes. But it was Bo who would ultimately be swarmed like a rock star by the pre-adolescent set.
This season, the good-natured dog has inspired ornaments dubbed “Boflakes.” He is a Godzilla-size candy presence on the lawn of the 300-pound gingerbread White House, which is crafted out of a blend of wheat, rye, and white flour to mimic the building’s pre-1789 sandstone before it was painted white. (The result is a gray White House that looks a bit like it needs a good power wash.)
And there is a lifesize replica of Bo in the East Garden Room constructed from 18,000 black pompoms and 2,000 white ones. These numbers, by the way, were duly memorized and offered up by Gloria Guerin, one of the 85 volunteers from various states who helped decorate the White House for the season.
Guerin is originally from Baton Rouge, La., and came to be standing on the first floor of the White House wearing an official smock, greeting guests and reeling off Bo facts because she’d been watching an HGTV special about decorating the White House and wrote in volunteering her services, even though glue guns and glitter are not part of her normal day-to-day. “My life is in mission work,” she explained. She’s a Christian missionary and has helped supply 176 students in Kenya with school uniforms and medical care.
The volunteers, as usual, are an eclectic mix: mostly women, all ages, oozing enthusiasm. Some are amateur florists, avid scrap-bookers and eager do-it-yourselfers. Nellie Funk, whose husband David recently returned from deployment in Afghanistan, volunteered at a floral shop when the family was stationed at Fort Campbell, which straddles the Kentucky and Tennessee border. “I did it for two years,” said Funk, an exuberant brunette who can rattle off everything there is to know about the 18-foot-6-inch Fraser fir that is the official White House tree and stands in the Blue Room decorated with ornaments made by children living on U.S. military bases around the world. Make sure you notice the garland, Funk said encouragingly, “It was embroidered by women in Ohio.”
For others, lending their hand to the nation’s holiday décor is more about being part of history. “I’m in school to be a chef, so I’m artistic and creative in that manner. And I do floral arrangements on the side,” said Cynthia Smith, who accessorized her burgundy-hued volunteer’s smock with a pair of magnificent chandelier earrings in lilac crystals. Originally from Delaware, Smith had been in Washington almost a week building little decorative boxes and stringing ornaments. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a real job,” she said of her days spent among the White House ribbons and bows. Volunteers pay for their own travel and lodging, Smith said. The White House provided lunch during the eight-hour—and longer—days. “But it’s been more thrilling than words can say.”
The White House has had a holiday theme since the 1960s, when first lady Jacqueline Kennedy created a “Nutcracker” Christmas for her daughter, Caroline. This year’s theme is “Joy to All” and recognizes the nation’s military families. While some 60 percent of the ornaments are recycled, many of the new ones have been made by the children, parents, and spouses of servicemen and women.
But at the unveiling, it was the kids who got the royal treatment by Michelle Obama, who invited them to join her in the State Dining Room at a trio of crafting and candy-making stations helmed by the White House holiday team of executive chef Cristeta Comerford, pastry chef Bill Yosses, and florist Laura Dowling.
“We’ve got activities planned,” said the first lady, who was wearing a festive gold skirt and matching top. “Parents, do not despair. Your children will be safe. We will bring them back, maybe a little dirtier, but they’ll be happy. [With] a little bit of a sugar high, maybe.”
The little ones in their ruffles and tiny ties filed into the State Dining Room in all its gilded grandeur. They were on their best behavior. They hung ornaments; they made lollipops; they decorated pomegranates. They chatted with the first lady. But most important, they had a special petting session with Bo, the tail-wagging star of the season.