WASHINGTON (AP) — New at the White House this holiday season: penguins, snowmen and snow women, and hanging snowflakes.
Returning this season: larger-than-life replicas of dogs Bo and Sunny, an 18 1/2 -foot Blue Room tree dedicated to military families, and a gingerbread White House — covered in dark chocolate, instead of white chocolate as in years past, and weighing in at nearly 500 pounds.
President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, expect to welcome more than 68,000 guests in the weeks before Christmas.
They'll be greeted at the East Wing entrance by a family of plywood penguins before walking down a hallway with paper snowflakes hanging overhead. There's one snowflake for each state and U.S. territory, along with others made by local schoolchildren who adorned them with hand-written wishes.
Outside the hallway windows, 56 snowmen and women, some wearing hats and scarves or earmuffs, look on from the first lady's garden.
The first lady unveiled the decorations Wednesday, giving military families the first peek. Afterward, she led a group of children dressed in their finest clothes to the East Room where they prepared crafts and treats with help from the White House executive chef, head pastry chef and head florist.
Mrs. Obama said celebrating the start of the season with military families is an important part of her family's White House tradition.
"We do this because of everything that you all do every day to make our country great," she said. Mrs. Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, started a nationwide campaign in 2011 to generate more public support for active-duty and retired service members and their families.
In all, some 62 trees and 70,000 ornaments, most of them reused from years past, decorate the White House.
The Fraser fir that dominates the Blue Room features messages to U.S. troops from their families on a ribbon that wraps around the tree. Its decorations were inspired by the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag. Each family will receive their portion of the ribbon after the holidays as a keepsake.
Some 55,000 feet of black yarn was knitted into 7,000 pom-poms that were used to make the Bo and Sunny replicas.
Nearly 90 volunteers from across the country spent from the day after Thanksgiving through early this week decorating the building. Among them was first-time volunteer Cheryl Forbes, who said she was surprised to end up working in the Oval Office.
"It took me a minute to take it all in," said Forbes, a vice principal at a charter school in Bronx, New York. "Just to see where a president sits, it's indescribable."
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