New Castle News

December 19, 2012

Union Township native helps to decorate the White House

Dan Irwin
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — There are some addresses that simply scream Christmas.

The North Pole.

Manger Square, Bethlehem.

Or, for New Castle native Nicole White, 1600 Pennsylania Ave. — at least, after she got done with it.

White, a Union High graduate and daughter of Eugene I. and Carol Barber (who still live in the township), was one of 67 volunteers chosen to decorate the White House for Christmas, following the theme of “Joy to All” chosen by first lady Michelle Obama.

According the White House Historical Association, first ladies have been charged with decorating the presidential mansion for Christmas since 1929. In 1961, Jackie Kennedy became the first to introduce an official theme to the process.

It’s not clear when the doors were opened to volunteers to help with the chore. One thing, though, is certain: It’s not an easy gig to get.

“You have to submit an application,” White said, “and there are thousands of applications from around the United States and everywhere else.

“And once you’re selected, you have to go through a rigorous background check and security screening. If you pass that, then you are extended an invitation to participate.”

For White, the opportunity to spend time inside the home of the president of the United States was especially sweet, since she’s been back in the country for four months. After college, she moved to Alaska, where she met her husband, James, — a tech sergeant in the Intelligence Career Field of the Air Force — in Alaska. Between living there and her husband’s overseas postings, she’s been out of the Lower 48 for 18 years.

Her time away, though, was well spent, at least in creating a strong resumé for a potential White House decorator.

“I did a lot of event planning while I was overseas — major events for international affairs” said White, who now lives in Maryland. “I did a planning symposium in Alaska — that’s considered international because we dealt a lot with Russia — and did events for military leaders in Portugal, the Middle East and Germany.

“I’ve always been a volunteer. It’s just something I like to do, to give my time. Since I don’t serve, I think it’s only fair that I give my time to the people who do — and what better place than the White House?”


White was notified in October that she had been accepted as a volunteer, and reported on Thanksgiving evening to begin her five-day odyssey.

The first two of those days, she said, were spent at “a secure, undisclosed vacation that I really can’t give you any information about,” she said. “But while we were there, we were hand-making the majority of the ornaments that would be going everywhere in the White House.”

That was followed by three days of actually decorating the Obamas’ residence.

“And believe me, it was not a cakewalk,” White said. “We were all sore the last day; we all had blisters on our feet by the third day.

“You start at 6 and you’re done in the evening, as if you were working (a job).”

None of that, though, could take the luster off the assignment. White remembers seeing Christmas cards from previous presidents and first ladies in one hall she decorated, and was on hand when the 300-pound gingerbread White House — a tradition since the 1960s — was brought out.

Indeed, just setting foot in the august domicile left her breathless.

“It was a ‘wow’ every single day,” she said. “It was amazing. On the first day, they actually give you the first 30 minutes just to absorb where you’re at.”

All told, there are 54 trees set up along the visitors route inside the White House, and 90,000 people are expected to view them during the holiday season. The one that meant the most to White, though, was the one that pays tribute to the armed forces and their families.

“I was given the honor to do the Armed Forces Tree, which is the first one you see when you walk into the White House through the South Portico,” she said. “And those are the ornaments that I hand made. So, being a military spouse, it was even a better treat for me to do that tree.”

The experience climaxed on White’s final day when she got to meet the first lady.

“It was overwhelming,” she said. “No matter your political affliation, as a person, she is unbelievably kind and down-to-earth. What you see is what you get with her, and I appreciate that.”


Just when White thought that the magic was winding down, she got an unexpected invitation.

Michelle Obama was to host a reception to unveil the decorations, and she invited Blue Star and Gold Star military families, as well as the Wound Warrior Project, as guests. The event also was open to media.

“I was asked if I would like to do a press conference, and I said ‘absolutely,’ ” White recalled. “I ended up being interviewed by the BBC and a French newspaper.”

On top of that, she fielded questions from HGTV’s Genevieve Gorder for that cable network’s White House Christmas 2012 special, which aired earlier this month. Encore presentations are scheduled for 9 p.m. and midnight Dec. 22 and 11 a.m. Dec. 24.

When she finally did head home, White took with her 1,200 photos that she’d shot, the invitation she’d received to participate and a signed copy of the Obamas’ Christmas card.

“Getting to be a part of that,” White said, “especially with me having been back in the U.S. for just a few months — it’s going to be a very special Christmas for me.”