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      Holidays at the White House 2006

Gary Walters
White House Chief Usher

December 20, 2006

Gary Walters
Happy Holidays! Hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas. Thanks for joining us today. I'm happy to answer any questions you may have regarding the decorations, Holidays at the White House or anything else on your mind. So, let's get started...

Cliff, from Brimfield,Ohio writes:
Chief Usher Walters: First and most important. I want to THANK YOU for having served your country and I believe seven President's. You having done your job, helped the President to do his. You know the old saying that it's nice to go away but nicer to come home. I know that you consider it a real pleasure having served the President's as Chief Usher. The Presidency with the pressure cooker schedule and issues. You made coming home to the White House for the President a safe harbor to get his second wind to carry on his duites. Do you intend to write a book? The good stuff not any of the dirt stuff as some people call it. Anyway You and the family have a very Merry Christmas and once again THANK YOU.

Gary Walters
First of all, thank you for the kind and most generous comments. Many people have asked and historians have said that I should – but that decision is yet to be made.

Gregory, from Torrance, CA writes:
Dear Chief Usher Walters: How many presidents have you served? What is the funniest thing that ever happened? Thank you.

Gary Walters
I have had the honor of serving under seven presidents – Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush. After 36 years it is nearly impossible to say what is the funniest thing that ever happened!

Elaine, from Creston OH writes:
Is there a memorable holiday guest at the White House that you will never forget?

Gary Walters
This may not be the answer that you were looking for, but the most memorable holiday guests are the "President's Own" U.S. Marine Corps Band that plays for every holiday event. They bring great joy to everyone – especially the Usher’s Office as the band plays right outside our door.

Sarah, from Third Lake, IL writes:
Mr. Walters- Your biography shows quite a varied and impressive background. Your career must be rewarding. Also, I would imagine you have become very well acquainted with the members of the first families you have worked with. Do you have specific warm memory you would like to share? Thank you -

Gary Walters
We, the Residence Staff, become very close to each First Family, and our warmest memories usually are directly associated with their activities. We keep that as private to the families.

Adam, from Potomac, Md. writes:
What's your take on the Terps chances on the hardwood this year? Been to any games? --Adam

Gary Walters
Thanks for asking! The ACC is going to be terrific this year, and, with the exception of North Carolina, there seems to be great parity! Maryland will beat UNC at home and do much better than expected. Yes, I have season tickets and will be there this Saturday.

Michael, from Powell, Tn writes:
How is the National Christmas Tree decided on and purchased? Merry Christ-mas

Gary Walters
The National Christmas Tree Association’s Grand Champion Grower each year donates the Blue Room tree to the White House.

Dean, from Moose Jaw, Canada writes:
Hi Gary,I love to see the White House at Christmas. It seems to be so magical. Do you have a favourite Christmas memory from the White House?

Gary Walters
My favorite memory is the look on the first guest’s face each year as they see the decorations. We always look in their eyes for their reaction.

Marlon, from Warren, MI writes:
I really love watching the television specials on holidays at the White House. I wish you the best in all your retirement. Would you please share your most memorable holiday experience with us?

Gary Walters
One of my most memorable holiday experiences happened one year when we weren’t able to get a tree from North Carolina into the Blue Room. The tree was the correct height but it was so wide – even when wrapped tightly – it would not fit through the front door! The next year we began to visit the donors in order to select the tree in person.

Barbara, from New York City writes:
Is there a decoration that as part of the White House Archives from past first families is still displayed every Christmas?

Gary Walters
No. Each First Family uses a different décor each year. We preserve as many of the decorations as possible during each administration and at the end of the administration transfer those items to the National Archives for use at a potential presidential library.

Jim, from Oak Brook, IL writes:
From watching the TV program on HGTV on the 2006 White House Christmas decorations, it appears that most of the greenery is artifical and not real. (You could see the decorators moving and shaping the garlands around the fireplaces etc). This is true and if so, why is real evergreen not used?

Gary Walters
Some of the garlands are artificial greens because they are difficult to replace, such as those over the mirrors in the East Room. However, the wreaths in the windows are live, as well as the floral arrangements and the poinsettias which are replaced as required considering that the decorations are in place through the entire month of December.

Susan, from Appleton, WI writes:
Mr Walters,How do you prepare the White House for an event that involves a celebrity and entertainment? Do the celebrities stay in the White House? Thank you.

Gary Walters
In addition to being the "People's House," please remember that the White House serves as the home to the First Family during their tenure. Any guests that stay here are invited to do so by the President.

Brittany, from Salt Lake City writes:
Is there one menu for all of the holiday parties, or are there multiple menus rotated throughout the holiday season? What's your favorite dish on the menu this year? Thanks

Gary Walters
In previous years we rotated a couple of different menus but this year Mrs. Bush worked very hard with the chef to develop one grand menu for all of the holiday receptions. I always enjoy the shrimp!

Sally, from independence, mo u.s. writes:
Thank everyone again this year for an excellent Barney Cam. Looking forward to it has become an annual event at my house. Great job everyone.

Sincerely, Sally

Gary Walters
Thanks, Sally. The production is a lot of fun and is a creative way to showcase the White House decorations to young and old alike. By the time it is completed, I think we all enjoy Barney Cam more than Barney!

Katherine, from Queen Creek, Ariaona. Desert Mountain Elementary school writes:
Whose picture is above the mantle of the fireplace in the Vermeil Room?

Gary Walters
That is a portrait of Mrs. “Lady Bird” Johnson in a grand yellow dress. She was married to President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Kathy, from Williamsport,Pa writes:
Will the White house post photos of the decorations and trees in the various rooms on the internet this Christmas. I saw it one year on line as a forward from a friend. Is it possible to see the tress etc? Thank you,Kathy

Gary Walters
Thanks, Kathy. In fact, there are several Holiday photo essays already posted on the White House website. You may also visit to learn more about “Holidays at the White House” this year.

Doug, from Berryville, VA writes:
When does the White House start planning for the Christmas holidays?

Gary Walters
Each March we begin to develop ideas to present to the First Lady.

Keisha, from Nashville North Carolina writes:
Please tell me who was the first President to put up the first Christmas tree in the White House?

Gary Walters
Great question, Keisha. President Benjamin Harrison was the first to place a tree in the private quarters (now the Yellow Oval Room) in 1889.

bob, from iowa writes:
What are some of the difficulties that you face when having the holidays at the White House?

Gary Walters
Making arrangements for the large numbers of guests at receptions, dinners, and luncheons while still having thousands of tourists and special holiday tours for the entire month of December.

Rita, from Anaheim writes:
How does the First Lady decide on each year's theme and how do you avoid duplication of earlier years? How early does she start the planning?

Gary Walters
The Residence Staff, principally the chef, floral designer, and the First Lady’s staff begin each spring to develop a theme for the First Lady’s consideration. We have lots of photos from previous years to avoid duplication.

Bobby, from NYC writes:
How long does it take to write, produce and then film each years Barneycam?

Gary Walters
The group that produces Barney Cam tells me that script ideas are discussed in October and finalized in mid-November. I know that our participation takes place over at least a week while the decorations are being completed.

Debbie, from Los Angeles, California writes:
Dozens of privileged florists come to decorate the White House. Whose job is it to remove and pack up the decorations AFTER the holidays? Same florists?Also, what happens to the gingerbread house?


Gary Walters
Some of those same wonderful volunteers come back to take down the decorations. We pack the decorations and keep them in case the First Lady chooses to reuse any of them in the next couple of years. After over a month, the gingerbread house is hard as a rock and begins to deteriorate – therefore we dispose of it.

Lindsey, from Kaukauna, Wisconsin writes:
Hi, I was wondering what the total number of ornaments that are hanging on all the christmas trees inside the White House?

Thanks Lindsey

Gary Walters
There is 1,100 feet of garland, 4,638 red glass balls, 2.860 silver glass balls, 269 wreaths, and 310 red bows this year.

Chris, from Minnesota writes:
I saw the wonderful special on HGTV about how the White House was decorated for Christmas this year. My question is what are the most popular items on the buffet at the holiday receptions. Merry Christmas

Gary Walters
White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford and her team have done an outstanding job with this year’s menu which is served at various holiday parties and receptions. Here is the full menu, but highlights include shrimp, lamb chops, and chicken fried steak. For vegetarians – green and white asparagus with lemon aioli.

Heather, from Maryland writes:
I visited the White House last December, and I thought the Gingerbread White House was the coolest thing. Will you be doing something like that again this year?

Gary Walters
Yes, the gingerbread house has become a standard part of the White House Christmas decorations. After being asked by Mrs. Bush, former White House chef Roland Mesnier created this year’s impressive gingerbread White House.

Lindsey, from VA writes:
How many parties and other holiday events do the president and first lady have to attend each year?

Gary Walters
This year – it changes from year to year – there are a total of 27 holiday events, not including bill signings, presidential ceremonies, and other official activities.

Jason, from Tennessee writes:
Happy Holidays Mr. Walters and Best Wishes on your retirement. What is a way someone could prepare themselves to become the future Chief Usher at the White House?

Gary Walters
Volunteers also help to take down the decorations. The National Park Service crew keeps the trees fresh by insuring that they always have water in the stands, and we use hot water to keep the pores open.

Gary, from Dallas, Texas writes:
Does the first family have its own personal Christmas tree in the residence?

Gary Walters
Yes, it was donated to the First Family by the Botek family, who also donated the Blue Room tree.

Dell, from Falls Church, VA writes:
Hello: I was wondering who was the first President to open up the White House to the public to see the decorations? Is Blair House as fully decorated as the Mansion is?

Gary Walters
The Blair House is decorated but not to the same extent as the White House as it is not open to the public. The first tree that we can document in the public spaces of the White House was placed in the Blue Room in 1909 by the children of President Taft.

Hanns, from Michigan writes:
How far back does the title "Usher" go? Where did it come from? Has anyone ever suggested "modernizing" it to "chief administrative officer" or something equally bland?

Gary Walters
The title of "Usher" dates back to the early 1900's and was derived from the Purser's office who was responsible for budget, expenses and Presidential activities.

Mary, from Corpus Christi, Texas writes:
Your biography states that you were once a member of the Secret Service. How did you move from that position into your present job?

Gary Walters
By virtue of being in the Secret Service, I became aware of the Usher's office and it's responsibilities. I applied for the position when an Usher retired and was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Brenda, from West Midlands, UK writes:
Dear Mr. Walters,Have you had the opportunity to visit Buckingham Palace andor to interact with employees of the Queen about the similarities and differences in operating the Palace and the White House? If so, could you please characterise those similarities and differences, even in a general way?Kind regards, Brenda C.

Gary Walters
I have not officially visited Buckingham Palace, other than as a tourist years ago and stood outside the gate. During the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to host members of the Buckingham Palace staff here at the White House and have received an invitation to visit which I hope to do in my retirement.

Michael, from Winnipeg, Canada writes:
Hello Gary,What's the next redecorating project at the White House and whose decision was it to move the O'Keefe painting from the Green Room to the Library?

Gary Walters
The most recent redecoration project just completed on December 1 which was the White House Library located on the ground floor. The Presidential advisory committee (the Committee for the Preservation of the White House) assisted Mrs. Bush in selecting the decor and it was their advice to move the O'Keefe painting to that location.

Devon, from New Hampshire writes:
Dear Mr. Gary Walters, I am participating in a project at my school called "White House Dinner". I chose the topic "Energy Crisis" and invited 17 people to the dinner. Where in the White House would on be able to seat 17 people for a dinner? The State Dining room only has 14 chairs.

Thank You For Your Help Devon in New Hampshire

Gary Walters
A group of 19 (don't forget to include the hosts, President and Mrs. Bush, when planning events in their home) could be served in any room of the White House at a variety of different table shapes. The photo you must have seen may have shown 14 chairs in the State Dining Room, but that is nowhere near the maximum number. In fact, at State Dinners, there are 130 served in the State Dining Room.

Analise, from KCMO writes:
Mr Walters-- what do you think is your greatest memory from serving so many years in the white house? what memories will always stick with you? happy retirment, analise , kcmo

Gary Walters
The U.S./U.S.S.R. Summit held at the White House in 1987 when I believe that I witnessed the ending of the Cold War as President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev spoke to the world before a roaring fire in the State Dining Room of the White House.

Martin, from Sun Prairie, WI writes:
First of all thank you for your service to the White House and to our First Families. I would like to know about the duties of a chief ushers? If you serve at First Families house in Texas, and at Camp David?

Gary Walters
As Chief Usher, believe me, I have enough to keep me busy here at the White House.

Daniel, from Great Barrington, MA writes:
What has been your best moment at the White House? And, what is the hardest part of your job? Thanks.

Gary Walters
My best moment was the first time a President called me by my first name -- and it's happened six times. What a thrill! The hardest part of the job is saying goodbye.

Marie, from Northville, Michigan writes:
Dear Mr. Walters, Every year I look forward to seeing the special on TV showing the Whitehouse decorated for Christmas. Somehow, this year I have not seen one advertisement saying when this would occur. I would be very appreciative if you would tell when there might be a special airing. Thank you, and Merry Christmas. Marie

Gary Walters
The HGTV program has already aired a number of times. The first showing was on December 6th. I believe that there are two additional airings scheduled for 9 PM Christmas Eve and 12 Noon Christmas Day. Check your local listings or the HGTV website for channel information and other details.

Jill, from Reston, Virginia writes:
I am told there is a holiday exhibition outside the White House that is open to the public, a display that includes trains. Is this correct? Can you tell me when it is open? I would like to bring my children on Friday evening. Do we need to make reservations or can we just come?


Gary Walters
I believe that you are referring the Pageant of Peace, where the National Christmas Tree is located on the Ellipse (South of the White House). The President lit the tree on December 7th this year. This area, complete with toy trains, is free and open 24 hours to the public.

David, from Emory, Virginia writes:
What holiday theme have you enjoyed the most over the years? Also, I want to wish you best of luck in leaving the White House. I hope someday to sit in the Oval Office as the President and appreciate the service and true care that the workers put in to keep the house a treasure for all Americans. Merry Christmas

Gary Walters
This is a very tough question because they have all been so wonderful but I did really enjoy the first year we did multiple trees in the East Room with "snow" and watching the tourists shiver at the cold scene they encountered.

Barbara, from Great Falls, VA writes:
How do you think your wife is going to handle having you around the house all the time now that you are retiring?

Gary Walters
Thanks, Honey. I know you could answer this question better than I. You will see lots of me!!

Gary Walters
Thanks again for all of the wonderful questions and your kind sentiments upon my retirement. It truly has been an honor to serve seven Presidents and their families. Again, Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas.

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