The White House isn’t simply home to American presidents and their families. It’s also a magical place where the Christmas dreams of ordinary citizens can come true.
Just ask Marilinda Schor, a 66-year-old retired florist from Newark, Ohio. Ever since 1994, when she watched an HGTV program about volunteers decorating the White House, she has wanted to help transform the executive mansion into a Yuletide wonderland of fir trees, wreaths and velvet bows. Last month, her dream came true. Schor joined a corps of volunteers whose holiday trimming has elicited expressions of joy from the Obama family, who are celebrating their first holiday season at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The volunteers’ handiwork will help set the mood this month, when the Obamas host nearly 30 holiday parties and 50,000 guests. “There was a heavy focus on the involvement of volunteers in the White House holiday decorations because of the Obamas’ wish to include everyone,” says Semonti M. Stephens, deputy press secretary for the first lady. “The Obamas want to open up the doors to the White House to ensure that it is the people’s house.”
Stephens says 92 lucky volunteers were selected from a long list of those who wrote letters and e-mails asking to get involved. Schor had been writing for years but was never invited.
She might have given up hope if not for the 2007 film The Bucket List, in which Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman starred as terminally ill men who create a checklist of things to do before they die. The movie “kind of jarred me to get started on the things I really wanted to do,” Schor says. “I decided 2009 was the year. It was either do it, or shut up about it. So I went after it with a vengeance.”
Schor wrote two letters to Michelle Obama, and called the White House every two weeks. Last September an invitation arrived in the mail. “Frankly, I didn’t think anything about it, because it wasn’t unusual for me to get a letter from the White House saying thanks for offering to volunteer, but no thanks. So I opened it and read, ‘Dear Volunteer,’ and I said, hot damn! I’m finally going to do it.”
The day after Thanksgiving, at 7:30 a.m. sharp, Schor reported for four days of holiday decorating duty at the White House. “We were all hugging,” she says of the volunteers she met from around the country, who paid for their own travel expenses. “We were so thrilled to be there—I swear we were levitating off the ground.”
That day, the volunteers were driven to a warehouse to pick up the decorations, some dating back to the Kennedy era. Schor unwrapped a gorgeous set of 14-inch gold pinecone ornaments, which she then arranged in boxes for Secret Service agents with bomb-sniffing dogs to inspect.
On the second day, Schor’s job was to secure wires to glass ornaments that were to hang on the official White House Christmas tree, an 18-foot Douglas fir. “Some were very ornate with bling all over them,” Schor says.
In line with this year’s holiday theme of “Reflect, Rejoice, Renew,” the Obamas sent about 800 ornaments left by previous administrations to various community groups, which decorated the ornaments to pay tribute to local landmarks, such as the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore or the Kennedy Space Center. The ornaments were then returned to the White House.
On her last day on the job, Schor was the first volunteer to arrive, but the last to get in because of a security list mix-up. But once inside, she joined a swirl of activity, decorating two 15-foot Fraser firs in the Grand Foyer. As it turned out, getting past security was the easy part. Schor discovered the lead decorators were perfectionists. “If they didn’t like what you were doing, they would take the ornament off, and you’d have to start again,” she says. “They knew exactly how they wanted things.”
Throughout the day, Schor floated from job to job, working on various decorations in some of the most famous rooms in the White House. In the East Room, volunteers decorated the four fireplaces with fresh garlands, blue hydrangea, seeded eucalyptus and beaded fruit. They also hung four 60-inch wreaths suspended with silk cord behind antique torchères.
“That night, the Obama girls and their grandma came into the Blue Room to look at the tree,” Schor says. “It was fun to see them, just like normal kids. And then a few minutes later, the Secret Service were talking into their wrists, and we knew that Michelle was coming to see the trees.”
Schor would have to wait until the following day to meet the first lady. The White House held a reception for volunteers, where Michelle Obama graciously thanked them for their work. “It felt outstanding,” Schor says of her experience. “It was a group effort. It was the most beautiful decorating job I’ve ever seen—way past magnificent.”
Craigh Barboza is a writer in Washington, D.C.