There is a monthslong operation underway at the White House, executed with the help of several branches of the military, all in largely unseen corners of the mansion. But this is no national security mission: It is the three-week marathon of nonstop party-hosting, regardless of the beat of grim news, that is required during holiday season when you are president of the United States.Navy men are pitting dates in the White House driveway. Coast Guard personnel, their arm tattoos peeking out from culinary whites, mash sweet potatoes in the East Wing’s basement kitchen. Thousands of latkes deep fry in canola oil under a tent not far from the North Portico. Upstairs in the pastry shop, which is about the size of a galley kitchen in a small Manhattan apartment, bakers are preparing more than 500 pounds of dough for 25,000 holiday cookies, including some that look like Bo and Sunny, the Obamas’ dogs.The work began the day after Thanksgiving, when nearly 100 volunteers piled onto buses and were taken to a warehouse on the outskirts of Washington to find the raw materials — 62 trees, more than 70,000 ornaments and garlands adorned with nearly 4,000 bells — to prepare the White House for 20 holiday parties during its most trafficked time of the year.“This involves a lot of people and a lot of details,” said Deesha Dyer, the White House social secretary, who is charged with coordinating the parties. A handmade sign outside her office with pictures of a Christmas tree and a Hanukkah menorah says, “Just 20 receptions to go!”
© 2015 New York Times News Service
“The holidays really are an all-hands-on-deck time frame for us, where every single shop in the house has to step up, and a lot of behind-the-scenes work has to take place before we get to the actual finished product that we all get to enjoy,” said Angella Reid, the chief White House usher, who oversees team leaders in charge of various aspects of the reception — linens, electrical wiring, flowers. “Our mission is really to make sure that whatever we do is unseen. I sometimes describe it as Disney — you throw the pixie dust, and it all looks perfect.”The planning starts in March, when staff members discuss initial concepts for the year’s holiday theme. Weekly meetings start in June. By Thanksgiving weekend, the frenzy of decorating begins, and the White House resembles a chaotic construction zone with plastic covering the floors.“It was the most special time of the year, but it is just a huge undertaking,” said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to Laura Bush. “By the time it’s over, you’re ready for it to be over.”There have been nightmares of Christmases past. At one reception in 2011, a heavy garland hanging on an expanse of 18th-century molding crashed to the ground while Michelle Obama, the first lady, was speaking to guests, shattering glass and cocktail tables below.Daniel Shanks, the White House events usher, who is taking part in his 21st holiday reception season, said there was little room for error.“In 21 years, we have never disappointed a first family, and we will not let it happen — virtually impossible,” Shanks said in the Blue Room last week, wearing a tie with Christmas lights. “That’s our mission. It just will not happen. Not on my watch.”
Timeworn tricks make it all possible, including some that keep the parties on schedule. When it is time for guests to leave, some of the 70 military social aides on hand during the holidays perform what is known at the White House as the “chicken walk,” a very slow shuffle beginning at the outer reaches of the State Dining Room. Clad in dark blue dress uniforms trimmed with gold braid, the aides slowly invade guests’ personal space and tell them politely that the party has ended, asking them to please make their way to the exit.Guests are often reluctant to do that. The parties, after all, feature huge buffets of shrimp, smoked salmon, baby lamb chops (1,600 pounds of them will be consumed at the White House over the next two weeks), turkey (45 birds have been brined) and sweet potato soufflé (1,200 pounds of potatoes). Michelle Obama has introduced a cauliflower macaroni and cheese into the traditional mix, and this year she added a “minigarden” canapé with hummus and fresh vegetables. There are also 14 desserts, as well as a 500-pound gingerbread-and-chocolate White House.In the middle of the holiday party season, food production grinds to an abrupt halt and all the equipment is removed before the White House’s two Hanukkah receptions Wednesday, when rabbis will arrive to make the kitchen kosher so that observant Jews who only consume food prepared in accordance with Jewish law may eat it. (The Bush White House began the practice in 2006, McBride said, after noticing that much of the food at its Hanukkah reception was going untouched.)That all happens long after Hedieh Ghaffarian, the chief florist, and a team of helpers have worked on labor-intensive decorations like giant Sunny and Bo replicas. The replicas are made from 55,000 feet of yarn knit over 400 hours into 6,400 pompoms. Beside them are tall candy topiaries with peppermints meticulously hot-glued to a foam base.“It is probably the most daunting time of the year because you have a series of events, so much planning has gone into it, and for weeks before you know the behemoth of Christmas is looming,” said Lea Berman, a former social secretary for Laura Bush, who attended a lunch last week with Dyer and others who have held the post.“We all look at Deesha and say to ourselves, ‘Oh, gosh, I’m sorry for what she has to go through the next three weeks,” Berman said. “It’s a big assignment.”
© 2015 New York Times News Service
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