As the owner of Southern Traditions Floral and Gifts in Swainsboro, Jim Roberts has been creating masterful holiday décor and arrangements for customers for more than two decades. This year, Roberts had a considerably larger responsibility – decorating the most well-known home in the country for Christmas, the White House.
For the second year in a row, Roberts was chosen through an application process to be part of the team that decorates the White House for the holidays. He traveled to Washington, D.C. on Nov. 23, just before Thanksgiving, and was there for eight days. Roberts and teams of people selected through the process spent every day tirelessly decorating the White House, but did get Thanksgiving day off to celebrate the holiday.
Last year, Roberts was chosen as a volunteer and worked as part of a larger team to facilitate the vision of the First Lady and White House designers. This year, however, Roberts had a bigger role.
“This year, the experience was a little bit different, because last year, I was a worker,” Roberts said. “This year, I was asked to return as a Team Captain, so I had a team underneath me. I was supervising the work and keeping our team on task, making sure everything was done in the rooms assigned to us. Last year, I was following someone else’s instructions, and this year, I was giving the instructions.”
Each year, the First Lady selects a theme for the annual White House Christmas decorations. According to a press release issued by the White House, this year’s theme, “‘America the Beautiful,’ is a tribute to the majesty of our great Nation. From coast to coast, our country is blessed with boundless natural wonders. The timeless treasures represented in this year’s holiday showcase remind us of the true American spirit. Together, we celebrate this land we are all proud to call home.”
Roberts said that the First Lady and her designers determine the plan for the décor, and it is the responsibility of the Team Captains to make sure those wishes are carried out.
“We’re given a recipe of what they want to create, and then it’s up to us to implement what the First Lady and head designer have decided should go in each room and how it’s going to look,” Roberts said.
Roberts said that everything is executed on a team level, and each team is responsible for certain tasks or areas of the White House. Roberts’ team was tasked with three areas – the East Landing, East Colonnade and East Garden Room. The East Landing is where visitors enter the White House, making his team responsible for the first impression people get of the White House at Christmas. The East Landing is also home to a very special tree – the Gold Star Tree.
The Gold Star Tree, according to the release, is an annual tradition among the holiday decorations and “pays tribute to our American heroes and their families who walk beside them in service.” It is decorated with Gold Stars, which symbolize a member of the armed forces killed in service.
When asked about the highlight of the trip, Roberts immediately responded, “The Gold Star Tree.”
“The Gold Star Tree has so much meaning,” Roberts explained. “I actually had five Gold Star families that I met and who were on my team, and they helped me create the tree. It is decorated with a lot of blue, gold and red, and there are ornaments from each branch of the military that we placed on the tree. I withheld all the Gold Stars, and only the Gold Star families decorated the tree with those. To me, it’s the most important tree in the house, and everything that went on it had to be perfect.”
Roberts said hearing their stories about their loved ones and what they’ve experienced added special meaning to the project. “One of the family members was doing an interview, and she was asked what made the tree special to her, and she started talking about her brother. She called the Gold Star Tree the ‘priciest tree in the White House’ because her brother paid for it with his life.” This year, Roberts had each family write their loved one’s name on a ribbon, which was attached to the ornament and then placed on the tree.
In the East Colonnade, a corridor that connects the body of the East Wing to the residence, Roberts and his team designed decorations that celebrate “the diverse landscape found across this great Nation,” according to the release.
“Down the Colonnade, we represent each region of the United States, and within each region, we represent each state,” Roberts explained. The regions are separated by urns, and in every urn are trees representative of each state in that region.
“When you first walk in, we have the national tree, the oak,” Roberts said of what his team created. “And as you walk down the Colonnade, you walk through the landscape of ‘America the beautiful.’”
The third area Roberts was tasked with was the East Garden Room, which is commonly known as “Booksellers.” According to the release, the room “displays holiday cards sent by first families over the past 12 administrations. This year’s card, shimmering in gold, shows the unique landscape of America, the beautiful.”
“The tree in this room holds the presidential ornament for the year,” Roberts explained. “It’s not an ornament that is sold. A very limited number are made, and it’s only given to someone by the First Family.
In addition to decorating the most visited home in the country, Roberts had many memorable moments – eating meals in the State dining room, a tour of the Rose Garden and meeting the First Lady.
“As a Team Captain, we do get to meet the First Lady,” Roberts said. “She does come in and greet the entire group and make a speech, but then she personally brought the Team Captains into a room and personally thanked us.”
Roberts said he was very impressed by First Lady Melania Trump. “She has the most class, and she’s the most humble person,” Robert said. “If you meet her in that setting, it’s totally different than when she gives her speeches, different than when you see her on TV. She comes in and talks to you like a normal person. It’s good to see people out of the light of everything else. When you see them out of the public eye and just see them one-on-one, you see a whole different person. She was just happy and jolly and genuinely thankful for what we did.”
When asked about the chance of going back next year, Roberts said he’d loved to, but spots are not guaranteed. “You hope and pray you will get to go back,” Roberts said. “I’ve been two years in a row. One year was enough for a lifetime, and the second year was the icing on the cake.”