WASHINGTON - New at the White House this holiday season: penguins, snowmen and snow women, and hanging snowflakes.
Returning this season: larger-than-life replicas of dogs Bo and Sunny, an 181/2-foot Blue Room tree dedicated to military families, and a gingerbread White House - covered in dark chocolate, instead of white chocolate as in years past, and weighing in at nearly 500 pounds.
The Obamas expect to welcome more than 68,000 guests in the weeks before Christmas.
The visitors will be greeted at the East Wing entrance by a family of plywood penguins before walking down a hallway with paper snowflakes hanging overhead. There are one snowflake for each state and U.S. territory, along with others made by local schoolchildren who adorned them with handwritten wishes.
Outside the hallway windows, 56 snowmen and snow women, some wearing hats and scarves or earmuffs, look on from the first lady's garden.
Michelle Obama unveiled the decorations Wednesday, giving military families the first peek. Afterward, she led a group of children to the East Room, where they prepared crafts and treats with help from the White House executive chef, head pastry chef, and head florist.
The first lady said celebrating the start of the season with military families was an important part of her family's White House tradition.
"We do this because of everything that you all do every day to make our country great," she said. The first lady and Jill Biden started a nationwide campaign in 2011 to generate more public support for active-duty and retired service members and their families.
In all, 62 trees and 70,000 ornaments, most of them reused from years past, decorate the White House.
The fir that dominates the Blue Room features messages to U.S. troops from their families on a ribbon that wraps around the tree. Its decorations were inspired by the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag. Each family will receive a portion of the ribbon after the holidays as a keepsake.