WASHINGTON - 'Gifts from the heart' is the theme of Jill Biden's first Christmas as first lady, and she has filled the historic home with tributes to those who have inspired her over the past year: front-line workers who soldiered through the pandemic, service members who gave their lives, and members of her family and those of previous presidents.
This year's official Christmas tree is a 5.5-meter-tall Fraser fir covered with white doves and ribbons bearing the names of U.S. states and territories.
'For all of our differences, we are united by what really matters, like points on a star,' she said after the decorations were unveiled this week. 'We come together at the heart. That is what I wanted to reflect in our White House this year. In each room, we tell a story of gifts from the heart in the East Wing. We see the gift of service with shooting stars representing the front-line workers who brought light to our lives in the darkest days of this pandemic.'
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This year's decorations echo the theme of the last Christmas of previous first lady Melania Trump. Her final Christmas decorations as first lady paid tribute to first responders, such as police and health care workers, who were also featured in this year's decorations.
But can you eat it?
As usual, the White House pastry team this year spent several weeks putting together a hefty gingerbread display.
This year, the 226-kilogram construction features the White House but also includes a school, police, fire and gas stations, a hospital, a post office, a grocery store and a warehouse.
Executive pastry chef Susan Morrison told VOA the display took 55 sheets of gingerbread; 55 kilograms of pastillage, a type of sugar-paste icing; another 15 kilograms of royal icing; and 13 kilograms of chocolate. Plus a large quantity of something called 'gum paste,' which is a sugar dough used for decor.
Gingerbread houses sit in the East Room of the White House during a press preview of the White House holiday decorations, Nov. 29, 2021.
So VOA posed the obvious question, 'I promise I'm not going to do this, but could you eat all of this?'
'You could, technically, except it's meant for display,' Morrison said with a laugh. 'So the icing on the outside, when it is exposed to air, becomes very firm like concrete.'
She laughed. VOA did not touch or attempt to eat the gingerbread display.
Love it or hate it, 'we love you'
Christmas trees have been a White House fixture for more than a century, but it was first lady Jacqueline Kennedy who started decorating by theme, choosing 'The Nutcracker Suite' for the first project.
The first ladies' efforts haven't always been warmly received, and this year's theme was no exception, with some Americans taking to Twitter to pick apart the first lady's style choices. Critics howled over former first lady Melania Trump's 2018 decorations, which included red Christmas trees, with some calling them 'more frightening than festive.'
But first lady Biden said that while the world may still be scary, the holidays shouldn't be.
The East Room of the White House is decorated for the holiday season during a press preview of the White House holiday decorations, Nov. 29, 2021.
'There are still challenges ahead for our nation,' she said, speaking to the 100-plus volunteers festooned with the White House's 41 Christmas trees with 80,000 lights, 1,800 meters of ribbon and more than 10,000 ornaments.
'There will be moments when the answers seem unclear. But we have a guiding light as well. Not a star in the sky, but a divine truth within us, the values that make us who we are, the threads that unite us all, the gifts from the heart. No matter how dark the night when we turn toward that light, we will never be lost. So thank you for helping us share those gifts from the heart. And happy holidays and Merry Christmas. From our family to all of yours:We love you.'