Kellie Makar with the White House gingerbread house. Photo courtesy of Kellie Makar.

High school teacher Kellie Makar is willing to go the extra mile to create absorbing lesson plans for her students. She’s even been known to go an extra 250 miles.

Makar, who teaches classes in government to seniors at North Catholic High School, traveled those miles to Washington, D.C. over Thanksgiving weekend to help decorate the White House for Christmas. It is the second time she was selected as a volunteer decorator. Her first experience was in 2019 under the Trump administration.

Kellie Makar in her official decorating apron outside the White House. She wore a pickle pin each day in honor of Pittsburgh. Photo courtesy of Kellie Makar.

“I have turned this into an entire unit for the week before Christmas. You know how kids are before Christmas,” Makar says, laughing. “It catches their attention. We get ready for the Christmas season by learning about the history of Christmas at the White House.”

The class covers the role of the First Lady, making ornaments with a historic focus, the annual gingerbread house and the formation of the White House Historical Association, which sells ornaments to help fund White House updates.

Makar also includes the tradition of First Ladies choosing a theme around which decorations are planned. That practice started with Jacqueline Kennedy, who chose “The Nutcracker” as her initial theme in 1961. Lady Bird Johnson chose an Americana theme with a comforting and nostalgic décor. Barbara Bush focused on family literacy. Michelle Obama opted to include as many Americans as possible in her Reflect, Rejoice, Renew theme by asking 60 community groups across the country to redecorate 800 White House ornaments from previous years. And Melania Trump went with Time-Honored Traditions for her first White House Christmas.

The 2021 White House Holiday Guide. Photo by Kellie Makar.

This year, First Lady Jill Biden decided on Gifts from the Heart, inspired by small acts of kindness throughout the pandemic. Each room presents a different gift, from service and friendship to family and gratitude.

Planning begins each spring when the First Lady meets with the design team. Throughout the year, the designers come up with a rendering of how everything should look. Most of the components are built in advance, with an army of volunteers completing the magic.

Kellie Makar in the Library, which she helped decorate. Note the handmade butterflies and birds. Photo courtesy of Kellie Makar.

Makar worked in the Library, where the focus was the Gift of Learning that honors the efforts of educators who approach teaching in completely new ways. Decorations included stacks of books along with butterflies and birds made from recycled paper and newspaper.

“My team made the purple butterflies that you see all over the fireplace and in the tree,” she says. “Some of it was craft-making and then we executed based on the designers’ designs.”

In the Vermeil Room, Makar worked to present the Gift of Visual Arts. Designers took a whimsical approach with the inclusion of children’s handprint art. “I worked with one of the White House florists on the mantle and we added all the fun pieces like the pencils and the paintbrushes and the color swatches,” she says.

And Makar created boxwood wreaths from scratch to hang on the chairs in the China Room.

The China Room extends the Gift of Friendship and Sharing. Photo by Kellie Makar.

The volunteers reported at 7 a.m. daily for the four days following Thanksgiving. Each day started with a Covid test, then the team went to work until 5 p.m. On the fourth day, they were invited to the first White House Christmas party.

Volunteers are chosen from an application process that attracts thousands of crafty hopefuls. In previous years, the White House selected people from every state, with volunteers coming from as far as Hawaii. This year, due to Covid concerns, volunteers were selected from more local states. Transportation and hotel expenses are the responsibility of the volunteers, but they do get breakfast and lunch cooked by the White House chef.

Details of decorations in the Library. Photo by Kellie Makar.

The experience is well worth the sacrifice of time and money for Makar who lives in Marshall Township with her husband and 2-year-old son.

“Oh my gosh, I told the kids that it’s the Super Bowl for a government teacher,” she says. “It is indescribable. Getting correspondence that’s signed from the White House, I never would have thought it would happen. For it to happen twice is a dream come true. I can’t wait to tell my son about the experience when he is old enough to understand.”

Will she try for a third time? Makar laughs at the thought.

“My first instinct is I’d love to try to go back,” she says, “but I think it would also be neat for others to have the same experience, too.”

The White House by the numbers:

  • There are 41 Christmas trees throughout the White House.
  • More than 6,000 feet of ribbon, 300 candles and 10,000 ornaments were used this year to decorate the White House.
  • More than 78,750 lights decorate the trees, garlands, wreaths and displays in the White House.
  • 25 classic wreaths adorn the north and south facades of the White House.
  • More than 100 volunteers work to decorate the inside and outside of the White House.
  • For the gingerbread house, the White House pastry team used 55 sheets of baked gingerbread, 120 pounds of pastillage (sugar-paste icing), 35 pounds of chocolate, and 25 pounds of royal icing.

Sally Quinn

Sally Quinn is a Pittsburgh-based editor and writer who writes about food, entertainment, kid stuff, pop culture, cocktails!