Mrs. Knehans goes to Washington

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Mrs. Knehans goes to WashingtonEllen-Marie Knehans in her official apron and badge — Courtesy photo


If the tiny odds she faced in being selected as one of this year’s volunteer decorators for Christmas at the White House are any indication, Ellen-Marie Knehans of Ridgecrest is a part of the 1 percent.

In September the fifth-grade teacher at Gateway Elementary School was researching Constitution Day activities for her students. She encountered a prompt to apply as a volunteer decorator.

“At the time I wasn’t even sure it was real,” she recalled. “I followed the link and saw that it appeared to go to the White House website, but it’s so hard to tell sometimes if something on the internet is authentic.”

But she proceeded, with some trepidation, to throw her hat into the ring. She stated that she had been a Navy wife for 20 years and had spent years as a public school teacher.

“I was overjoyed when I found out I was chosen,” she said. “I didn’t know if it was because I said I was a military wife, or because I was a teacher, or maybe neither of those reasons. But it was an absolutely amazing experience.”

While Christmas observances of First Families in the White House have been well documented since as early as 1870, the tradition of the First Lady decorating the Blue Room was officially started by President Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lois, in 1929.

First Lady Melania Trump reportedly began researching and collaborating with designers this summer for this year’s patriotic red, white and blue theme, dubbed “American Treasures.”

More than 7,000 applied to join the exclusive decorating team. Only 125 were selected.

Knehans spent her own money on airfare and lodging; “we were volunteers in every sense of the word.” She traveled to the East Coast early enough to spend time with her son, Jonathan, in Maryland. Then she traveled to the official decorators’ hotel, “The Donovan,” to begin her Pennsylvania Avenue adventure.

“Never have I felt so welcomed by a group,” said Knehans. “It was so clear that our presence was necessary, valued and appreciated.”

Decorators started at 6 a.m. the first day, getting credentials and swag bags and signing waivers for the HGTV special (airing Dec. 9) that would capture their experience.

The first two days decorators assembled decorations at an off-site location. On the third day, they adorned the Blue Room and Grand Foyer with their creations, which mixed this year’s thematic materials with other decorations that have been illuminating the landmark for 40-plus years.

Knehans said she immediately bonded with the other volunteers — Americans of all ages from all places and walks of life, with a few other teachers and military wives.

Several were return volunteers, she noted. “I found out that I can apply again. I don’t know that I’ll be chosen, but if I do this again, I’m staying for the whole time.”

Knehans returned home in time to be with her family for the Thanksgiving holiday. But on the Monday after the holiday, First Lady Melania apparently hosted a reception in the volunteers’ honor.

“This experience was just such an honor to be a part of,” said Knehans. “Getting to be at one of our national symbols for this tradition, and having that to carry back to my classroom and our community are very exciting.

“And I want people to know, our President and First Lady really love us. They were so appreciative of every one of us.

“I also learned that, from the Secret Service to the cooks to the servers and every other staff person we met — they all love our President and First Lady, as well.”

To see the video presentation of “American Treasures,” visit

Story First Published: 2018-11-30