White House

White House decks the halls for the holidays

An ornament hangs on the tree dedicated to the memory of fallen members of the military in the East Entrance Landing of the White House which is decorated for Christmas, Dec. 3, 2014.
An ornament hangs on the tree dedicated to the memory of fallen members of the military in the East Entrance Landing of the White House which is decorated for Christmas, Dec. 3, 2014. McClatchy

There are the decades-old traditions you’d expect at the holidays: Christmas trees and fresh garland, satin ribbons and a gigantic gingerbread house.

But this year at the White House, there’s also a modern twist: Ornaments printed in 3-D, an interactive digital snow-scape and a program allowing girls across the nation to log in and light up the trees.

First lady Michelle Obama unveiled the always highly anticipated holiday decorations at her adopted home Wednesday, kicking off a season that will bring 65,000 guests to a White House decked out in red, green and LED lights.

“This year, we’ve got some new twists,” Obama told the first few hundred guests gathered to see the decorations. “We’ve got a lot of fun, new technologies. We’re playing with technology this year.”

There’s even a pair of robots made to look like first dogs Bo and Sunny that can bow their heads as visitors walk by, based on infrared motion sensors in their eyes. The annual tribute to the family’s Portuguese water dogs is expected to be one of the biggest draws this year.

But there are still plenty of wreaths, topiaries, pine cones and lights. And, of course, trees. Lots of them. Twenty-six are scattered throughout the house.

One hundred and six volunteers from across the nation, including 20 connected to the military, have been working on the decorations since Thanksgiving.

As she’s done in past years, Obama allowed troops, veterans, wounded warriors and military spouses to tour the White House first. She spoke to them briefly in the East Room before taking their children to the State Dining Room to decorate cookies and visit with the real Bo and Sonny.

“The holidays are a chance for us to show what our country is grateful for this holiday season, and that’s all of you, the military families who serve our nation proudly and give us all so much,” she said. “Because we know that too often, your stories of courage and strength often get lost in the shuffle. And there are a lot of people who don’t realize what you all go through.”

In the East Colonnade, an archway made of 300 bunches of preserved hydrangea applied in a herringbone motif was erected. In the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, there’s an oversized gift-wrapped present made from mirrored material. In the Grand Foyer and Cross Hall, snowflake and star ornaments are suspended on the columns above.

In the State Dining Room, there’s a massive gingerbread house made of 250 pounds of sugar-based dough called pastillage, 40 pounds of marzipan, 25 pounds of gum paste and 80 pounds of gingerbread dough.

But perhaps the most talked-about decorations this year are those with digital enhancements.

Five kinds of 3-D-printed ornaments, selected in a contest, are on display around the house. In the East Garden Room, an interactive digital snow-scape will capture the movements of visitors in front of it. Just outside the White House, the LED lights on the 56 trees that represent U.S. states and territories will flash in patterns coded online by girls across the country who logged onto the website Made With Code.

The Obamas even released what they call the first interactive White House holiday card, though it looks a lot like a video.

The theme of the decorations this year is “A Children’s Winter Wonderland,” celebrating what the White House calls the magic created by a winter wonderland that inspires kids and adults to dream and to wonder.

As is the tradition, the first lady presided over the delivery of the official White House tree last Friday, the morning after Thanksgiving. Horses hauled a wagon up the driveway to the North Portico that carried the 18-foot white fir from Crystal Spring Tree Farm in Lehighton, Pa., the winning farm of the National Christmas Tree Association’s National Christmas Tree Contest.

Housed in the Blue Room, the tree is adorned with ornaments made out of coloring book pages and cards with thank-you messages written to the military. Visitors are also able to fill out Operation Honor cards, writing notes of gratitude in honor of military families, service members and veterans.

“There’s the amazing smell of pine that just wafts through the house,” Obama said. “That’s the best part, really. That really tells you it’s Christmas.”

On Thursday, President Barack Obama, along with actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, will help light this year’s National Christmas Tree in President’s Park outside the White House. Musicians – including Patti LaBelle, Ne-Yo, Steve Miller and Chely Wright – will perform.