Denise Layman Helped Craft the ‘Magic, Wonder and Joy’ at the White House
This Ohio woman shares her story of transforming the ground floor into a holiday marvel.
Ohio mother of four Denise Layman wears a lot of hats — educator, crafter and professional knitter. Last month, to her elation, she added another: Official White House holiday volunteer decorator.
For the better part of a week over the Thanksgiving holiday, Layman joined about 300 volunteers from around the country led by a team of professional designers who cut, paste and hand-assembled ornate decorations for the White House. This year’s theme — ‘Magic, Wonder and Joy’ of the holidays — was unveiled earlier this season by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, who thanked volunteers, like Layman, for their efforts in a reception at the White House.
The experience, for Layman, was more than she ever imagined. But, it was her handiwork on the military kids’ ornaments that she says she’ll never forget. Children from military families made pictures from hand prints that were sent to the White House to be made into ornaments for the Red Room. The ornaments represent the first lady’s Joining Forces initiative that supports military and veteran families, caregivers and survivors. Layman and other volunteers took the pictures and transformed them into ornaments.
There were a few that had no picture of the family members. Layman, choking up for a moment, says those images represented family members who had passed away. “They had little angel halos on some of them,” she recalls. “Those were very touching. When you see those … it can be overwhelming.”
Layman shared her story of volunteering at the White House with East Wing Magazine in a recent Zoom interview and describes how it began by chasing a personal dream.
Q: How did you get involved in the White House holiday decorating?
A: I've known about the volunteer program for a while and I kept missing the application deadline. So this year, earlier in the year, I emailed the White House visitors office, and [asked] when are applications coming out? They said they weren't out yet. They would contact me when they were opening and they did. I thought they probably won't pick me, because I know a lot of people apply a few times before they get accepted. And they accepted me! So, I was like I guess I'm going to D.C. for a week.
Q: What was that like when you saw that your application was accepted?
A: They were going to give you the results by 5 p.m. on a certain date. And 5 p.m. on that date came and went. I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I didn't get in.’ And then in the morning, there was an email and it [said I was] accepted. I was just so amazed. I was just so surprised and delighted. Wow, they picked me!
Q: Why did you decide to apply to be a volunteer decorator?
A: I am a big history geek. I think that there is not a historic historical site on the East Coast that I haven't been to. Lately, I've been a docent at the National First Ladies Library and Museum [in Canton, Ohio]. One of the things I mentioned in my application was back in 1976, when it was the bicentennial, there were all these people reenacting Martha Washington spinning yarn. And that had a big influence on me way back when I was 6 years old.
I know that especially for Dr. Biden, and Michelle Obama, and in their terms as first ladies, they have had a big push in honoring military families and military children. My brother-in-law was in the military, so my nieces and nephews, of course, had that experience as being military children. I've seen what they've gone through. I know that this is something that the first lady is especially interested in honoring and that I was interested in doing that, as well.
Q: What part of the decor were you involved in?
A: We were responsible for decorating the Green and the Red Rooms. Oh, my goodness. There was a lot. The first two days, we were at an offsite location and did a lot of prep work. So some of the things that we did, if you see the pictures of the Red Room, on the trees, there are ornaments that have art made by the military kids from everywhere. I mean, there were kids from all over the place, Germany, and American military kids on bases everywhere.
They sent in a little piece of art that was on a piece of paper in a circle. So we had to basically cut out all those circles. We had to make sure we kept the kids’ names with their art through the whole process. We put them in little frames that look like ornaments. We adorned them with antique fringe and sequins and gold and silver painted macaroni and all kinds of things.
That was very labor intensive. It was all a lot of small detailed things in our two rooms. We made hanging [decor] for the windows, which had pom-poms on them. So we made all the pom-poms for those. The theme in the Red Room was “Crafting the Holidays Together.” It was all kinds of things that represent the joy of making holiday crafts together. On the trees you'll see popcorn garlands and those are not real popcorn. Each one of those little popcorn was hand knotted with chenille yarn.
Q: What was your favorite part?
A: It was amazing to be in the White House because I'd never been in the White House before. Seeing some of those portraits and things that are in there, in person. But I think one of my favorite things was just meeting the people and getting to know the people on my team. And that camaraderie and that closeness you get over that short time was amazing.
Q: What surprised you about your experience?
A: I think the White House is a little smaller than I thought it was, honestly (laughing).
The detail that goes into all the spaces when they're decorating everything from the other rooms, as well. Everything is hand painted. Everything is touched by someone's hands on that volunteer crew. And in the State Dining Room, there are robots on the trees and each one of those was handmade by a volunteer.
Q: What do you think is most misunderstood about the White House holiday decorations?
A: I think the thing that might be most misunderstood is that people generally think they toss everything and they get all new stuff each year. They don't. All the ornaments, all the lights; a lot of that is recycled and reused. Some of the detailed things for the themes are made new every year like those robots. But a lot of the basic decorations, the garlands, the ornaments, the lights are recycled and reused each year.
Q: What did it mean to you to be part of the volunteer team?
A: I keep thinking, why did they choose me? Because a lot of the people there were interior decorators, florists, and event planners. It was surprising and humbling that they picked me to be a part of this special event to honor the military families and to make the People's House just special and magical for the holidays.
Q: Did you get an opportunity to see the first lady?
A: We did get to meet Dr. Biden at the reception. She came in and thanked all the volunteers. That was a chance for us to all go and see everything finished and get thanked by the first lady. Each volunteer group got their photo taken with Dr. Biden. I got to shake her hand and ask her a quick question. And then we got our photo taken.
It was very nice to be there and have her give her remarks and thank everybody and to see her in person and get to meet her even though it was briefly. It felt like she was very, very thankful and very gracious. And, you know, you could tell that she really very much appreciated all the hard work that was put into everything at the house.
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