Local teacher helps decorate White House for Christmas

A Seymour woman recently received the chance to help decorate the White House for Christmas.

Debbie Atchison, a Seymour-Jackson Elementary School teacher, returned from the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity Nov. 30 after spending four days in Washington, D.C.

This was her fourth year to apply after originally hearing about the opportunity on Fox News.

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She was one of about 130 volunteers who helped decorate the president’s residence this season, out of the approximately 1,000 that applied.

“I flew out there on Thanksgiving, and the next morning, we all had to meet downstairs at the hotel at 5 a.m.,” Atchison said. “We had to fill out paperwork, show our IDs and get tested for COVID, which was the most stressful thing.”

She said they were all worried that might have a false positive on the test and be sent home, and a few people did test positive.

“We then got divided into teams, and they were the names of the reindeer,” Atchison said. “I was on Team Prancer with nine other team members.”

The volunteers were shuttled from the hotel over to the White House each morning and received breakfast and lunch there. Their days began around 6:30 a.m. each morning and ended about 4:30 p.m.

Atchison said the volunteers were not allowed to take phones in with them the first three days because Melania wanted to be the first to unveil the finished decorations.

“Our team was in charge of decorating The Gold Star Tree, and it was truly an honor to work on,” she said. “That tree pays tribute to our American heroes and their families.”

This year families who decorated the tree could place the name of their fallen family member on a ribbon that went on the tree.

“Our team was also responsible for finishing the urns in the East Colonnade, and it was almost like walking through a forest,” Atchison said. “There were urns that represented each region of the United States and held branches from the state tree of those regions.”

She said Indiana was represented in the Great Lakes region urn.

According to whitehouse.gov, First Lady Melania Trump proclaimed this year’s Christmas decorating theme to be America the Beautiful.

She was inspired by traveling over the past four years to some of the nation’s most beautiful landmarks and meeting patriotic American citizens who share an appreciation for our traditions, values and history.

The tree with the presidential ornaments was in the Book Cellar, and Team Prancer was in charge of decorating it.

“Those presidential ornaments are all counted, and there were 90 of them,” Atchison said. “We had to put bows on them and were told we had to twist those tightly onto the tree because in years past, those ornaments had been stolen off of the tree.”

The President and First Lady sign those ornaments and give them to family, friends and dignitaries and they cannot be purchased.

After each tree is decorated, the team captain tells the head designer who works with Melania, who in turn comes over to take a look and checks it off.

“We finished the Gold Star tree on Friday and the next morning I asked our team captain if we got checked off,” Atchison said. “He said not only did we get checked off but he was told that the head designer and several White House staff members said it was the prettiest Gold Star tree they had ever seen, so that felt good.”

Atchison met five gold star families while at the White House, as they were able to come there and hang an ornament on the tree for their loved one, so that was very nice.

“On Saturday we got the presidential tree finished and then we got moved upstairs to the Grand Foyer and the Cross Hall,” Atchison said. “Those have the trees with the red plaid, red bows and red ornaments.”

She said the volunteers got to take a walk out through the Rose Garden that day too, which has never been done before.

Atchison said on that same day the White House pastry team brought in the Gingerbread House, which was amazing to see, especially the leaves that were individually made and placed on the trees and it showed the Rose Garden, too.

This year’s creation was displayed on the eagle pier table, replicating the West Wing, Executive Residence, East Wing and for the first time the Rose Garden and the First Ladies’ Garden.

Atchison said the Gingerbread House was made from 275 pounds of gingerbread dough, 110 pounds of pastillage dough, 30 pounds of gum paste, 25 pounds of chocolate and 25 pounds of royal icing.

A crew from HGTV was at the White House filming on Saturday as well.

Another job Atchison had was putting garland on the banister of the Grand Staircase that leads to the private residential quarters upstairs.

“It was kind of difficult to get everything on the banister to look right and yet follow the instructions of the curators,” she said. “Since the White House is a living museum and there are certain rules.”

Atchison said she got all the way to the top step but was not allowed on the landing.

On Sunday, Team Prancer continued working in the Grand Foyer and the Cross Hall, then on Monday it was pouring down rain and that was the day of the reception hosted by Melania.

“It was not only the volunteers who attended the party, but there was also White House staff family members and others,” she explained. “That is the day we got to take our cameras in with us and take pictures of everything.”

There is usually a grand buffet of food at the reception but due to COVID, there were food stations available. Her main priority at the party was taking pictures of everything.

One of the rooms that stood out for Atchison was the China Room, which had a kitchen vignette, a chair by the fireplace and a table that held a plate of cookies for Santa

“There were three stocking that hung on the mantle that said, POTUS, FLOTUS and Barron,” she said. “That was cute to see.”

She also took photos of the Vermeil Room, which was dedicated to President John F. Kennedy.

“The official White House ornament of 2020 is JFK and so that room had a nautical theme to it since he liked to sail,” she said. “In the library, that room was dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment and featured women who were pioneers for equality.”

Some of the other rooms she had the opportunity to see included the East Room, the Green Room and the Blue Room.

“The Red Room was in honor of America’s everyday heroes who serve as first responders and frontline workers,” she said. “Handmade ornaments highlighted professionals such as scientists, nurses, and others who serve their communities.”

This year’s White House Christmas theme being ‘America the Beautiful,’ transportation from coast to coast was represented upstairs in the East Room, from the First Transcontinental Railroad to the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

“Melania came down during the reception and she was about 12 feet away from me and she was absolutely gorgeous,” Atchison said. “She was very gracious, thanking us for the beautiful decorations and for spending time at the White House, away from our families.”

There were military bands playing music throughout the White House during the party, too.

In the evenings while she was there, Atchison had free time to walk around and explore the monuments and memorials, then went out for dinner with her team.

“It was surreal when you’re walking into the White House, especially that first day, looking above the Blue Room and seeing the Presidential Seal of the United States,” she said. “It’s very moving to see that and to know who was standing in that spot before me.”

Among the souvenirs the volunteers were given included a forest green White House apron, an embossed invitation to the First Lady’s reception, White House face mask, White House chocolates and a thank you note signed by Melania Trump.

Even though the long days were exhausting, it was an experience Atchison said she will never forget and considers it to be an amazing life adventure.

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