What it’s Like to Decorate the White House for the Holidays

You know you’re a talented and passionate holiday decorator when the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, invites you to the White House to help deck the presidential halls with boughs of holly, which is exactly what happened to Ryan Smith last year.

“It was one of the top five experiences in my lifetime,” says Smith, who began writing letters to the Chief Florist at the White House a few years ago when he saw an HGTV show that mentioned the volunteers who help decorate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the holidays. Finally last year, he got an email from the First Lady inviting him to the White House.

Ryan Smith adds finishing touch to Christmas tree
(Todd Buchanan)

Smith spent six days in D.C. working on the decorations with about 100 volunteers—three full days installing the 41 fresh trees and countless wreaths and garlands. Mrs. Obama hosted a volunteer reception, where she personally thanked Smith for his hard work. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about being there. It was an absolutely unbelievable, surreal experience that I am so thankful for.”

mh1111_MrXmas05
(Todd Buchanan)

It was the pinnacle of holiday decorating, even for a holiday fanatic. And both Smith and his partner Jeff Jones qualify for that designation. While most people pull a few boxes of holiday decor out of storage in late November, Smith and Jones begin the laborious process of unpacking more than 30 bins and boxes of holiday decorations the last weekend in October. In fact, an entire storage room of their Woodbury home is dedicated to housing their extensive collection for “the other 10 months” of the year.

The couple displays 12 trees throughout their home, each meticulously decorated with a different theme. From the “Silver and Gold Tree,” featuring ornaments in contrasting metallics, to the “Candy Cane Tree,” decked out in red and white peppermint-themed ornaments, to the “Old-Fashioned Tree,” which started as a sort of homage to Smith’s grandparents and has evolved to include assorted vintage ornaments, including Santa Clauses, sleds, and train sets.

“The biggest mistake people make when decorating their tree is using the same size ornaments throughout the entire tree,” Smith says. “The key is to incorporate ornaments of varying size and shapes to add dimension and interest.”

Where each tree is displayed in the home is as precisely planned as the tree itself. In the dining room, for example, sits the “The Harvest Tree,” drenched in various sizes and shapes of fruit ornaments dipped in gold and glitter. The tree topper is berries and stems.

Other trees carry more sentimental value for the couple. The “Mardi Gras Tree” is the first tree they designed and decorated the year they moved in together. “It’s full of primary colors and is so whimsical and fun,” says Smith. “It also brings back great memories of us
merging Christmases.”

Woodbury couple embrace the spirit of Christmas in their home
(Todd Buchanan)

Jones always enjoyed Christmas, but he was hardly the fanatic that Smith is. “Well, I don’t know many people who are as enthusiastic about Christmas as I am, but we’ve become a really good team at the holidays,” says Smith. “Jeff is extremely creative and it’s so much fun for us to work together on these projects.”

All of the trees are artificial, with the exception of the one on the deck, because they are easier to manipulate while decorating, Smith says. The “Traditional Tree” on their deck boasts cranberry garland and ornaments in greens, reds, and golds.

Though most of the 12 tree themes have been constant for the past three years, Smith and Jones create a completely new theme every couple years. They constantly ask themselves, how can we make it better
than last year? “We take ideas and inspiration from places we travel and things we see throughout the year, then we build on that vision,” Smith says.

His love of Christmas goes back to childhood. “Growing up, my entire family was very passionate about Christmas,” he says. “It was always such a magical time of year and, as I came to be an adult and got my own home, I wanted to continue that tradition. My passion has continued to grow over the years.”

Having the best holiday home on the block (or maybe in the state) certainly makes their home the hot spot for parties and gatherings. The couple hosts two or three large holiday events each year, inviting friends, family, and coworkers. Their big annual party is always the first Saturday after the New Year, “to keep the holidays alive just a little longer,” says Smith. “It’s great to see people’s reactions to the trees and the joy on their faces, especially the
kids. We decorate for ourselves, but it’s
wonderful to share.” 

img_2011-12_Midwest-Home-Mr-Xmas_Santa
(Todd Buchanan)

Tree Tricks

To those interested in amping up their holiday decorating efforts, Ryan Smith has a few words of guidance.

Φ Lighting your tree well is key. Start at the bottom and work up tier by tier. Wrap each branch and the trunk in lights for a fully lit effect.

Φ Think outside the box. An electric train under the tree is good, but an electric train IN the tree is better.

Φ Play with scale. Give your trees, wreaths, and garlands dimension using various shapes and angles.

Φ Use two or three kinds of ribbon in layers and coordinating colors to add elegance. Taffeta—the wider the ribbon the better—is the latest look.

Φ Take pictures once you achieve the look you want.  Review the images during the year to see if needed changes or new ideas occur to you.

Φ Decorations don’t have to be expensive. Use grapevine for garland, spray paint pinecones gold, silver or white, and shop on December 26.

Φ Don’t worry about being traditional. Get creative and express yourself.

—C.J.

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