Utah couple describes the magical experience of decorating the White House for Christmas

Dec 4, 2023, 4:30 PM | Updated: 6:08 pm

White House Christmas decorations 2023 (Farah Sanders)...

White House Christmas decorations 2023 (Farah Sanders)

(Farah Sanders)

HEBER CITY — When Farah Sanders saw an invitation by First Lady Jill Biden — on her Instagram account — seeking decorators for the White House, she jumped at the opportunity.

“I reached out to the White House in January and they said, ‘We would love to consider you, but not yet,'” Farah said. “And they said ‘we will contact you.’ And so they did. In August they sent me an email and they said ‘here’s the application process.'”


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A post shared by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden (@flotus)

She and her husband, Bryan Sanders, own and operate their own flower business: Huckleberry Lane Farm. The couple was able to use their experience as florists and flower farmers, on a grand scale at America’s Capitol.

“I went to him and I said, ‘Let’s start a flower farm,'” Farah Sanders said. “We have the land to do it and flowers bring joy and they bring happiness and kindness. So when we applied [to the White House] we told them about [a family] tragedy and how that sparked us starting this flower farm.”

Farah Sanders and Bryan Sanders in front of the White House Christmas decorations 2023 (Farah Sanders)

Anyone in the state can apply to be a volunteer decorator. Farah Sanders explained the application asks for your experience and skill set along with an extensive background check. She and her husband had to apply separately but could indicate on their application that they would be coming together.

“I was in the backyard playing with the dogs and she came outside and said, ‘How would you feel about having Thanksgiving in Washington D.C.?’ and I was like, ‘OK, great. Sounds good to me,'” Bryan Sanders said.

“I couldn’t believe it was happening at first, and I think the pinch me moment happened when I did walk out the front door of the White House and I thought, ‘this is where so much has happened, this is where heads of state have come this is where the transfer of power occurs;’ All of those things happen through those doors and under that portico and that was where it was that real pinch me moment and then I hauled a box of glue sticks into the house,” Farah Sanders said.

They were two of 3,000 applicants who wanted to decorate the White House this year.

“Nothing is paid for by the White House. It’s all volunteers paying their own way. And that was something that was so neat, was all these people were willing to pay their own way to come. They picked at least one to two people per state,” Farah Sanders said.

The couple arrived on Nov. 18 and worked decorating the White House for over a week.

“They divided us into teams that were the names of the reindeer from Santa, so we were team ‘Dancer,'” Farah Sanders said.

Then, the 300 volunteers set to work.

“Monday morning bright and early at 7 a.m., we reported to the White House and we basically spent Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday preparing for everything that we were going to decorate: so inventory of ornaments, any crafting materials, and things that we needed,” she said. “There were teams that were painting large wooden presents that were going to be displayed outside and making ornaments and just different items for the rest of the week. And then Friday through Sunday, it was just a mad dash to decorate everything. It was pretty intense the last three days.”

This year, the White House was decorated with:

  • Approximately 14,975 feet of ribbon, over 350 candles, over 33,892 ornaments, and over 22,100 bells
  • 98 Christmas trees throughout the White House complex
  • 40 sheets of sugar cookie dough, 40 sheets of gingerbread dough, 90 pounds of pastillage, 30 pounds of chocolate, and 50 pounds of royal icing used in the Gingerbread White House creation
  • Over 142,425 holiday lights to decorate the trees, garlands, wreaths, and displays in the White House.
  • 72 classic wreaths which adorn the north and south facades of the White House.

Some of those things are new, but Farah Sanders said a lot of the decorations are reused or are even DIY.

“So they’re really working on maintaining, you know, reusing, DIY lots of DIY,” she said. “The two of us made a wreath from scratch from leftover garland from years before and that wreath currently hangs over the gingerbread house that is in the White House.”

The gingerbread house is a nod to the 200th anniversary of the beloved Christmas classic, “The Night Before Christmas.”

“With that DIY, there’s everything from counting old ornaments to see how many you have, to measuring the length of garland to see what will go in what room when you get there, and tagging it all, Then it goes through a security process and it gets loaded on trucks and it gets sent to the White House.

“Then we meet at the White House and we start unloading and unpacking. We start hauling supplies and everything from glue sticks to the ornaments that we counted and the garlands and paint brushes and measuring tools and glue guns and scissors and wire. All of that comes in, and the volunteers load all of that into the White House and get to work.”

This year’s theme was The “Magic, Wonder, and Joy” of the Holidays. Photos of the interior show incredible candy corridors, brightly lit Christmas, trees, elegant garlands, and whimsical representations of children’s dreams.

Bryan Sanders and Farah Sanders worked on many things, but of note, Farah worked on a mantelpiece in the State Dining Room.

(Farah Sanders)

“I was able to do the mantel that sits right below the 1869 painting of President Abraham Lincoln,” she said. “I’d crawl up on the ladder and I would be right at the feet of the painting, one of the things I had to be very careful of is the garland could never touch the frame of the painting, let alone the painting.”

Bryan Sanders worked on the ground floor corridor, focused on children’s letter’s to Santa.

The letter display in the ground-level corridor. (Farah Sanders)

“They repurposed some old U.S. Post Office mailboxes and painted them red and put letters of Santa,” Bryan Sanders said. “It looked like different letters from children, flying around the hallway into the mailboxes, which was really cool. But yeah, it took us a good two and a half days to probably get it all done.”

Some of the letters used in the display were real letters mailed to Santa or to the president of the United States.

“It was all so whimsical. It was really neat. Everything from a sleigh with Santa’s reindeer to represent the night before Christmas, and the ground floor corridor,” Farah Sanders said. “The state tree- the fun thing is when you walked straight in to see the state tree in the playroom, Utah’s gift tag was right front and center.”

Utah featured in the White House Christmas decorations. (Farah Sanders)

Bryan and Farah Sanders were also at the White House during two notable events, the death of First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and the 60th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death. Both were honored with tributes there.

Rosalynn Carter (Farah Sanders)

“I was actually really excited because I had never been to the White House before and if there was any way to see it. I think that was probably the way to do it. Because you kind of had free rein, almost everything in the White House except the residence upstairs,” Bryan Sanders said. “And so being able to just kind of walk freely in and out of rooms and you know, decorating and moving stuff. I mean it was it was pretty awesome.”

The pair continued to emphasize that the decorations was huge group effort. They got to meet people from all over the nation. The volunteers represented 49 of the 50 states.

“I saw it as Americans coming together to benefit Americans,” Farah Sanders said. “That’s really what it was, and to serve the American public, because anyone can go and visit the White House at the holiday time.”

The couple is still in touch with many of the people they worked with in Washington D.C.

“It was seven days where you had people from about every single state in the United States that represented you know, different ethnic groups different you know, sexual orientations, political party, religious party, whatever. And we got along the whole week, there was no arguments, there was no fighting. It was just a common goal of decorating the White House which was fantastic,” Bryan Sanders said.

Since the White House encompasses so many different entities, there’s a lot of moving parts.

“So the house has multiple functions. Inside of the house, it functions as a national park and functions as a museum. It also functions as the executive branch of government. It functions as a residency, and with all of this going on, there are many, many, many hats helping this house function,” she said. “So there’s everything from the curators, to the National Parks Rangers to the Secret Service. Then there is the White House visitor center and then there’s the office of the First Lady, who helps oversee the decorating each year.”

Farah Sanders said the First Lady begins the process of planning for the holiday season the day after the Easter Egg Roll in April.

Tickets are available to tour the White House this holiday season on its website. 

It is anticipated over 100,000 people will visit this holiday season along with 20,000 people for dinners and gatherings.

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Utah couple describes the magical experience of decorating the White House for Christmas