SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Fifty-four Christmas trees, 90,000 visitors, and a nearly 300-pound gingerbread model of the White House - those are just a few of the figures that make this year's White House holiday season so eye-popping. Volunteers from around the country come to Washington, D.C., every year to help string garlands and hang ornaments through these legendary halls. For the third year running, NPR's Ari Shapiro brings us some of their voices.

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KATHY TONNIN: I'm Kathy Tonnin, from New Jersey. I was decorating the Blue Room tree.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: That's the official White House Christmas tree.

TONNIN: The official White House Christmas tree. And I have a fear of heights, but they were looking for people to go up on the scaffolding. And I thought, I had the opportunity to decorate the Blue Room tree; I'm going. And there I was, for days, on the scaffolding. It was great. It was awesome.

SHAPIRO: And your fear of heights?

TONNIN: Gone.

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WES RISCHER: My name is Wes Rischer.

CHRIS SCHWARTZ: I'm Chris Schwartz.

RISCHER: We're from Portland, Oregon.

SHAPIRO: And are you guys friends?

RISCHER: We're partners. I nominated Chris to do this. And I thought, I can finally write the letter because of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." I'm a military officer in the Oregon Air National Guard.

SHAPIRO: So Chris, let me ask: What does being here mean to you?

SCHWARTZ: I've never been to the White House before, but to be able to come under these circumstances and these terms, it's emotionally overwhelming. It really is.

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BILL YOSSES: My name is Bill Yosses. I'm the pastry chef at the White House. This is a gingerbread made from rye flour, whole wheat and buckwheat. The second floor windows are poured sugar that are transparent, and they're lit from behind. Except it's an image that we printed out on a printer, we put sugar on it and then the image stays on the sugar. So it's kind of like stained glass.

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PETE HALL: My name is Pete Hall. I'm from Louisville, Kentucky and I'm a ship captain.

SHAPIRO: And how did you end up here decorating the White House for the holidays?

HALL: My grandfather was the chief usher of the White House from 1938-1957. So he was here when they actually gutted this place and took the two floors down. And, you know, the president was living over in the Blair House at the time. And he was also here when they built the Truman balcony. So this is part of my family heritage. And actually I'm here as a surprise. My wife, who's right there, she's the one who set up the thing secretly for my birthday.

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LARA HALL: I remember my husband's mother telling me that there was a children's party at the White House and Mamie Eisenhower swung by their home to pick her up because her father, the chief usher was too busy.

SHAPIRO: To pick up his daughter for the children's party, so Mamie Eisenhower gave her a ride?

HALL: So the First Lady did. Yeah.

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SIMON: That was Lara Hall and other volunteer White House decorators. The pianist was Master Gunnery Sergeant Robert Bogislaw of the United States Marine Band. We had production help from NPR's Brakkton Booker. This is NPR News.

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