First lady kicks off Obamas' final White House Christmas

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Michelle Obama kicked off her family's final Christmas season at the White House on Friday by receiving a 19-foot Balsam-Veitch fir from Wisconsin as the official White House Christmas tree.

Joined by two young nephews instead of her teenage daughters, the first lady said she's ready and excited for the holiday.

"Christmas begins. The holidays start," Mrs. Obama exclaimed after "accepting" the tree from Dave and Mary Vander Velden, owners of the Oconto, Wisconsin, farm where it was grown. "We're ready. Our last one. We're excited about it."

The Vander Veldens won the National Christmas Tree Association's annual contest, earning the honor of supplying the White House with its official Christmas tree. Contest winners have provided the White House tree annually since 1966. A group of White House and other officials visited the Vander Veldens at their Whispering Pine Tree Farm in September to choose the perfect tree.

Late Friday morning, a horse-drawn wagon pulled the tree up the White House driveway. After a visual inspection, Mrs. Obama sought the opinions of her "replacement kids" -- nephews Austin and Aaron Robinson.

"It's great," 6-year-old Austin said.

"It's great. Should we accept it?" she asked. "Yes," he said.

Mrs. Obama explained that the appearance by her nephews "is what happens when you get teenagers," referring to 18-year-old Malia and 15-year-old Sasha, the daughters who in past years have joined her for the tradition of receiving the Christmas tree on the morning after Thanksgiving.

"One's asleep," she said, gesturing toward the White House. "These two are up," she added, referring to the sons of her brother, Craig Robinson, who was visiting with his family for Thanksgiving.

Malia and Sasha also skipped their father's traditional pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey this week; Austin and Aaron subbed for them, too.

The tree will be trimmed so it can fit inside the White House Blue Room, where it traditionally stands, tethered to the ceiling, as the centerpiece of Christmas at the White House. Mrs. Obama typically has it decorated to honor the U.S. military, which she has championed as first lady.

First lady Lou Henry Hoover started the custom of a Blue Room tree, decorating the first one in 1929, according to the White House Historical Association. The tradition of selecting a theme for the Blue Room tree began in 1961, during John F. Kennedy's administration. That year's tree was decorated with objects depicting characters and toys from "The Nutcracker."

The tree's delivery Friday also marked the start of an intense period of round-the-clock work through the weekend by scores of volunteers who help decorate the public rooms of the White House for Christmas.

Mrs. Obama plans to give military families the first look at the decorations on Tuesday.


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