By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a group of military spouses and children Dec. 4, during a preview tour of this year’s festive Christmas holiday decorations adorning the rooms of the White House.
Tributes to U.S. service members and their families are abundant in White House holiday décor, the first lady noted when she greeted military family members in the East Room.
“Your sacrifice and service to this country [and] your families’ stories are such an important part of our great American story — stories that remind us of the true meaning of the holiday season,” she said.
In that holiday spirit, children in the audience got a chance to go with Obama to an adjoining room where they made crafts and holiday gifts with her help, in addition to volunteers and White House chefs, bakers and florists.
And decorating the White House for the holidays was no easy undertaking.
Obama said more than 80 volunteers from around the country — including military spouses — began decorating the White House the day after Thanksgiving.
Military families give a lot of their time volunteering in addition to taking care of business at home while their loved ones are deployed, the first lady said.
“You are serving our nation, volunteering in your communities every day,” Obama told the families. She said a survey shows 81 percent of military family members volunteered in the past year.
While thinking of service members who will be deployed this holiday season, Obama said she’s reminded of the thousands who will awake in the middle of the night in a remote part of the world to use Skype to call home and read a special holiday story to their children, and will be on screen Christmas day to see their kids open presents from Santa.
She commended military families for spending hours filling holiday care packages for their service members to help them experience the holidays while deployed.
And deployed troops who can’t be home for the holidays find ways “to make the season bright” by banding together with others to create special military celebrations and traditions, Obama noted.
“No matter what challenges you all face –- during the holidays or any other time during the year, you … find ways to make it work and you do it with such strength and humor and grace,” she told the families.
Obama said she hopes Americans keep U.S. service members and their families in their thoughts during this holiday season.
“As we gather with our loved ones, I’d ask every American to remember what our military families and service members often experience during this time of year,” she said. “Let us all remember the sacrifices they make to proudly serve all of us.”
Some of this year’s White House holiday highlights include:
— Nearly 15 rooms and passageways displaying 24 large Christmas trees;
— A tree decorated in tribute to service members, decorated with Gold Star Families’ ornaments for those who made the ultimate sacrifice;
— The oval Blue Room, home to the official White House Christmas tree, an 18 1/2-feet tall, 11-feet wide Pennsylvania Douglas fir, covered in 2,000 ornaments of holiday cards made by service members’ children, photos of deployment homecomings and fabric ornaments with each state and territory’s silhouette on them;
— The East Garden Room trees made from stacks of books;
— Cross Hall, where trees reflect gathering around the nation’s heritage, decorated with ornaments representing great American sites such as the Statue of Liberty and Mount Rushmore;
— The “First Dog” display, a mechanical Bo and Sunny dog duo — made from 1,000 yards of satin ribbon — engaged in play; and
— A 300-pound gingerbread White House that sits atop the State Dining Room fireplace mantel, surrounded by trees made of sugar.
The White House expects about 70,000 visitors for the holidays this year, Obama said.
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkAFPS)