This year, we were privileged to have the ultimate Washingtonian Christmas experience . . . viewing in person the White House Christmas decorations!
No, we are not good friends with President Obama, or have any other political connections. Anyone can request these tickets through their Congressional representative and they are completely free! The catch is, though that you have to be VERY flexible with your schedule. In our case, we put in our request through Senator Mark Warner’s office in July. You have to fill out a form for each person on the tour identifying them by Social Security Number (this is the White House after all!) for a security screening. If you pass that, then you don’t hear whether you received the tickets and when your date is until two weeks in advance. Even then, your tour could be canceled at any time due to national emergencies, etc.
Our tour time was 7:30 a.m.!! Anyone who knows me know that this is pretty hilarious for a non-morning-person like me. We decided there was no way we would make it through Washington traffic in time unless we stayed overnight in a hotel. And that’s what we did and it was so fun to be a “real” Washingtonian for a few days.
Sadly, one thing that is made clear when you sign up for the White House tour is that you cannot take any pictures on the tour. You are allowed to bring in a cell phone with a camera in it but if you attempt to take pictures on the tour, the Secret Service will confiscate your phone!
We arrived around 7:15 a.m. for our tour. While I have been on White House tours before when I was a child, this was the first one as an adult. I was curious to see what impressions the place would make on me. From the moment you enter the White House grounds, you are struck with a feeling that you are in a very special place. Everything is very well kept and the security is very tight. You know that people are always watching you but it doesn’t feel oppressive or weird.
All of the White House employees we met exemplified Washingtonian professionalism. They were polished yet friendly.
The White House itself was so clean it was practically gleaming and it smelled of fresh evergreens. There were dozens of decorated trees as well as garlands and other decorations that complemented the architecture and paintings. There were a lot of decorations but they weren’t tacky or overdone. Everything was done beautifully and with a great sense of artistry. Even at that early hour of the morning, there was live music, with a local high school choir providing carols and piano, which made the experience even more magical.
I was bordering on mild depression knowing that I could not take photos of any of this beauty. Then, in front of me, I saw someone whip out their camera phone and start to snap away. “Oh, this will be interesting.” I thought. But then nothing happened! I moved to where the photographer was standing and saw this sign, which I consider the Obamas’ personal Christmas present to me:
"My" Christmas present from the Obamas!
The lighting conditions were a bit dark for my camera phone and some of my pictures are a bit fuzzy but it will give you an idea of what we saw.
For some reason, everyone in our group looked to me when they wanted to know what they were supposed to wear to visit the White House. Honestly, I had no idea and there were no instructions on this. It seemed wrong to wear jeans to the White House so I told everyone no jeans. Since there was a possible fashion range from tourist casual to suits. I told everyone I was aiming for “festive casual” which for me consisted of a skirt, holiday sweater, tights and boots. I put the children in holiday casual dresses and my son wore a version of his George Washington outfit from Halloween.
My White House fashion choice. (Sadly, all that was really visible was my parka).
Unfortunately, I forgot to wear a more formal coat and there was no coat room on the tour so what I really ended up wearing to the White House was my casual winter parka! In general, most people wore nice pants and shirts, with a variety of shoes from dress to comfortable walking shoes (a Washington tourist necessity). You can’t go wrong dressing more formally and a suit would not have been out of place.
(I recently read the transcript of a very cute interview Michelle Obama did with children at Children’s National Medical Center so I am going to intersperse my pictures with some of this transcript).
A huge version of Bo Obama in the White House Christmas decorations.
Q Does Bo go to bed early in the morning?
MRS. OBAMA: The question is, does Bo go to bed early in the morning. He does. He actually gets pretty tired early. He’s usually a lump by about 7:00.
Q Do you give Bo a gift for Christmas?
MRS. OBAMA: I do. Let’s cover his ears. (Laughter.) He’s probably going to get some stuffed toys. He likes the stuffed toys as opposed to the hard toys, because he chewed all of his toys up. So he’s out of toys, and he loves the fluffy toys so I’m going to get him some new fluffy toys.
I like how George Washington seems to be presenting this tree.
The Joining Forces Tree
Q What is your favorite Christmas tree in the White House?
MRS. OBAMA: Oh, my favorite Christmas tree in the White House is — there is — the biggest tree in the White House is in a room called the Blue Oval Room, and it’s the biggest Christmas tree — it’s just under 19 feet. And this year we decorated it — we call it our Joining Forces tree, because the decorations — the main decorations on the tree are handmade ornaments from military kids who live in bases all across the world. And there are messages from those kids, a lot of them to their parents who are serving in the military; some of them are to the President. So if you come to the White House, you can look at those ornaments and see the messages. And that’s my favorite tree.
An eagle ornament on the Joining Forces tree.
Dolley Madison's nook at the White House: a fitting, elegant fruit-filled room.
One of Dolley's fruit-laden trees.
Lincoln dining room.
This year's gingerbread version of the White House!
Michelle Obama's addition to the White House ornament collection.
Q What’s your favorite ornament?
MRS. OBAMA: My favorite ornament? In the whole wide world? I love the shiny balls. I love the — yes, anything shiny. What about you?
Q I like shiny.
MRS. OBAMA: All right, how many people like the shiny ornaments? Those are the best ones. (Applause.)
One of many fireplaces at The White House.
Q Hi. How many chimneys do you have at the White House?
MRS. OBAMA: Chimneys, this is a good question. I just asked this. We have 26 fireplaces, and 12 chimneys.
MRS. OBAMA: It’s a big house. (Laughter.)
Q Thank you.
MRS. OBAMA: So Santa has many, many options at the White House.
Q Does Santa have to go through Secret Service to visit the White House? (Laughter.)
MRS. OBAMA: Does he have to go through Secret Service? Well, Santa is probably one of the only people in the world that has his own Secret Service pass. I mean, everybody knows Santa — even the Secret Service. So they give him a pass.
Q Got it.
MRS. OBAMA: He’s got the highest security clearance there is.
Visiting The White House was an incredible experience and one I hope every American has the chance to experience at some point. It was definitely worth the early wake-up and a great way to celebrate Christmas American-style.