'Tis the Season for Holiday Parties at the White House

Visitors can be as snap-happy as they like: Cameras are allowed in all of the rooms, a rare chance to take pictures of the artwork hanging on the mansion's walls and to take in the holiday decorations.

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The theme of this year's decorations is "reflect, rejoice and renew." The displays are scaled down from previous seasons in an acknowledgement of the tough economic times and also to highlight the Obamas' emphasis on recycling.

Some of the decorations, in fact, are from previous administrations, but with an Obama twist.

"We decided to do something just a little different," Michelle Obama said earlier this month. "We took about 800 ornaments left over from previous administrations, we sent them to 60 local community groups throughout the country, and asked them to decorate them to pay tribute to a favorite local landmark and then send them back to us for display here at the White House."

Guests still will be able to admire an annual, mouthwatering White House tradition -- the gingerbread replica of the president's mansion, made over the last six weeks by White House pastry chef Bill Yosses.

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The 400-pound White House is made out of white chocolate and gingerbread with flourishes of marzipan to create the vegetables in the Obamas' garden and the furniture in the State Dining Room.

The best part? The entire gingerbread house is edible, save for the copper chandelier that hangs in the replica of the State Dining Room. But hands off: It's not meant for the guests to taste-test.

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The holiday season is not a time of merriment for the hardworking staff of the White House residence. Someone has to make the desserts and hors d'oeuvre crab cakes for all of those guests, and spruce up the place to accept visitors.


"Working on all that is a horrific experience," joked former White House executive chef Walter Scheib. "During the Christmas season, for those 20-some days, the chefs will be somewhere between 100 and 110 hours a week."

Scheib said that all of the food is fresh and made from scratch in the White House's relatively tiny kitchen -- 28 feet by 29 feet, according to Scheib. He called it a "gigantic logistical push" to serve the large number of guests.

"We would make several hundred thousand crab cakes, individually, one-by-one," Scheib said. "We would go through between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds of crab meat."

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So can the White House kitchen staff just say one night that it's time for leftovers or cereal for dinner for the first family?

"That works really well until you actually say it and they find someone else to do the job," Scheib said, laughing.

Scheib estimates that as many people come through the White House in the month of December as the rest of the year combined.

After playing hosts for the entire month of December, it's no wonder that the Obamas are planning to take some time off for vacation at Christmas and New Year's -- and not bringing 50,000 of their closest friends with them.

ABC News' Jake Tapper, Ann Compton and Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.

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