White House Invites All To 'Gather Around' A Holiday Tradition

Dec 7, 2013
Originally published on December 7, 2013 10:35 pm

Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, almost 100 volunteer decorators show up at the White House. They spend the next five days stringing garlands and hanging ornaments, making the White House sparkle for the holidays.

At NPR, we have a related tradition. This is the fourth year in a row that White House correspondent Ari Shapiro has brought us the voices of some of those volunteers.

In a few weeks he will fly to London and become our newest international correspondent. Before he does, let's take one last tour through the White House Christmas decorations.

A Gold Star Volunteer Brings Memories Of Her Son

Volunteer Mary Byers became a Gold Star Mother after she lost her son, Capt. Josh Byers, to an IED in Iraq. She came from Nashville, Tenn., to decorate the White House on the 10-year anniversary of his death.

"It's amazing. It's been an honor to be able to be a part of this," she says. "When I arrived to begin, I didn't know I would be assigned to the Gold Star tree, and chills went all over me when I was first told."

The tree is all patriotic, she says, "Red, white and blue. We've got little ornaments representing each branch of the military, and then families get to come in and make their ornament with their fallen hero's name."

This year, one of those ornaments bears her son's name.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


And now back to today's White House where every year on the day after Thanksgiving almost 100 volunteer decorators show up. They spend the next five days stringing garlands and hanging ornaments to make the White House sparkle. We have a kind of related tradition on this program. This is the fourth year in a row that NPR's White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro, has brought us the voices of some of those volunteers, so here's his tour: The 2013 White House Christmas decorations.

MARY ANNE SKOBIE: I'm Mary Anne Skobie, and from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: So tell me what this experience was like.

SKOBIE: Oh, it was fantastic. I really didn't think it would be for me because I'm a lot older than the other people. I didn't think I'd have the endurance, so I did yoga, Qi Gong, and walked two miles a day.

SHAPIRO: To get ready to decorate the White House for the holidays?

SKOBIE: Yes, and you cannot imagine what it takes.


MARY BYERS: I'm Mary Byers and I'm from Nashville, Tennessee. I'm an American Gold Star mother which means that I've lost a son or daughter in service to our country and my son was killed in 2003, July, on my birthday. And he was killed in Iraq by an IED and he was 29 years old. He was Captain Josh Byers.

SHAPIRO: I see a star with your son's name on it here.

BYERS: Right there. That's it.

SHAPIRO: What does it mean to you to be here decorating the White House on the 10th anniversary of having lost him?

BYERS: When I arrived to begin, I didn't know I would be assigned to the Gold Star tree and it just, I mean, chills went all over me when I was first told.


LISA WIMMER: Hi, I'm Lisa Wimmer from Quakertown, Pennsylvania. I'm a preschool teacher and I'm also a breast cancer survivor, so I wanted - I have a list of things I want to do and this is right at the top.

SHAPIRO: So you got to cross this off your bucket list, huh?

WIMMER: It's a dream and I met President Obama. I said it's an honor to meet you and he told me how sparkly I look 'cause I have glitter all over me and he gave me a hug and I got glitter all over his very expensive suit.


BILL YOSSES: I'm Bill Yosses. I'm the pastry chef at the White House.

SHAPIRO: So there's a huge fireplace here with a small model gingerbread White House on top of the fireplace.

YOSSES: Correct. It's made out of bread dough, but we bake it at a very low temperature so it doesn't get dark, and so it kept its white color.

SHAPIRO: Is this the first year that you have had a working fountain in front of the White House where the fountain is in the real White House?

YOSSES: To my knowledge, this is the first year that we had a working fountain, yes.

SHAPIRO: So this year's gingerbread White House requires not only electricians but plumbers?

YOSSES: Oh yes. Pretty much everybody gets involved.


JANICE WALKER: My name is Janice Walker and I'm from South Carolina.

SHAPIRO: It's got to be kind of crazy each day that you're here to think I'm in the White House stringing a garland on a fireplace.

WALKER: Absolutely. As my husband drops me off, I cannot believe I'm coming to the White House. And I'll say to him, I'm going to the White House this morning, I'll be ready sometime this afternoon. It's amazing. It's like an Oprah aha moment and I can't believe it. I pinch myself every day.


SIMON: That great pianist, by the way, is AnnaMaria Mottola, and you can see images of this year's White House Christmas decorations - gold and brass-colored branches and gingerbread dogs, at our website, npr.org.


SIMON: And a great reporter too. Ari Shapiro. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.