0 of 0


The White House is decked out with 62 Christmas trees and more than 70,000 ornaments — ready for what will be tens of thousands of visitors in the coming weeks.

Most of the decorating is done each year by volunteers from all over the country who apply for the chance to deck the halls of America's house. Each year, hundreds apply but fewer than 100 get the chance.

Christina Donovan and her fiance Trevor Smith both submitted applications this year. The couple runs a design company that includes holiday decorating.

They said they had agreed that "we would support each other if only person went, the other person would go to museums all day."

And at first, it looked like that could happen. She says her fiance got his email confirmation from the White House first.

"And I was waiting. And I was waiting," she said. "And I was, you know, very happy and proud for him."

Twenty minutes later, the suspense was over. Donovan and Smith helped decorate the Blue Room including the official White House Christmas tree. And, Smith said, the East Colonnade where they hung a whole lot of paper snowflakes.

"It was long work. It was tedious work, anchoring all 8,000 snowflakes," he said. "But it was absolutely wonderful and ... when it was all done just the impact of the entire hall was just breathtaking I think."

Fact check: It is breathtaking.

Donovan and Smith said they were "truly honored" to have the opportunity to help decorate the White House. And even though they didn't get to meet the first lady, they said they were able to meet presidential dogs Bo and Sunny.

Andrea Marks from Spotsylvania, Va., who helped decorate the Red Room, said "This is one that I will never forget."

"It's not like walking through and doing the tour," she said. "It's being a part of it and seeing how it comes together. And I have learned so much decorating skills now. So now I know how to decorate. I had to come to the White House to learn how to decorate."

Marks can be forgiven for not knowing how to decorate when she arrived. She spent a career in a field where tying bows and straightening garland isn't required — as a 30-year combat veteran of the U.S. Army.

She grew up in Jamaica and England and came to the U.S. when she was 17. Back then, she said, "I was a teenager in a foreign land looking for what to do next in life." After speaking with a young woman who said she was going to join the Army, Marks said she asked her "What do they do in the Army?"

"She said, 'girl you get to travel, wear a uniform and meet people.' I said, 'How you sign up?' Thirty years and 11 days later, I retired. That's my story," Marks said.

Marks retired as a command sergeant major, the second-highest enlisted rank in the Army. "So we were in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti ... Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan — yeah, we were everywhere."

And now the White House.

For Cheryl Forbes, an elementary school vice principal from New York City, there was a moment when the experience of decorating the White House got very real, and exciting.

"I made ornaments for the Oval Office," she said. "The garland for the tree we made in the Oval Office. And I was just like astounded."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.