It has been the tradition at the White House, as the winter holiday season arrives, for the wife of the U.S. President to choose a theme for the festive decorations at the first family's historic Washington home. As a former librarian, Laura Bush chose "A Season of Stories" as her theme, featuring characters from some of her favorite children's books.

A pianist's holiday tunes helped set the festive atmosphere for Laura Bush's presentation of the holiday décor. There were the usual Christmas trees sparkling with lights and trimmings. But Mrs. Bush directed her audience towards the papier mache' figures displayed throughout the White House.

"On the mantle behind all of you is really my favorite book as a child, Little Women. You'll see all the sisters and Marmy," she explains. "Over on this side [of the room] we have Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I loved Nancy Drew books. Finally, our newest, the huge bestseller, Harry Potter, which are the books I read this summer. They're on this far mantle, over here. I read all five of the Harry Potter books and loved them. It was great to discover a new author and have their whole body of work to read over the summer."

Other childhood storybook figures represented in the presidential mansion included such childhood storybook favorites as Curious George, The Cat in the Hat, and Alice in Wonderland.

The main Christmas tree, an evergreen standing more than five meters tall and hung with 13,500 lights, is in the mansion's Blue Room and comes from Wisconsin. At its base were what else - lots of colorful books.

Mrs. Bush joked with reporters about being certain that President Bush would be in the United States during the Christmas holiday referring to her husband's surprise visit to Iraq just weeks ago at the Thanksgiving holiday. She even told some reporters earlier in the day that she would be interested in visiting Afghanistan, and has a special interest in meeting women of that country.

On a more serious note, the First Lady had a special request. "I ask all Americans to reach out to military families that you know who have a loved one deployed overseas. Give them special support and special care this holiday season. The holidays are the most difficult when you're not with someone you love," she says.

Walking virtually unnoticed among the press contingent and First Lady's staff was the artist who designed this year's White House Christmas Card, Barbara Ernst Prey of Oyster Bay, New York. Ms. Prey, who has been painting watercolors for 30 years, started as an illustrator for such publications as the New Yorker magazine and the New York Times newspaper. She described how she went about choosing her subject for the card, which is mailed to about 1.5 million friends of the First Family around the world.

"When Mrs. Bush asked me to do the card, she was very gracious in giving me free rein of what to do. We originally thought we'd do something outside, and then we came inside and I was able to walk through all the rooms and did a number of studies and sketches of five different rooms," she explains.

But of all the historic and elegantly-decorated rooms at the White House, said Ms. Prey, one stood out.

"I loved the Diplomatic Reception Room, because it has so much color and this wonderful wallpaper that [First Lady] Jackie Kennedy had put in the room," she says. "There's this great Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington. It's a warm room; it's where [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt held the 'Fireside Chats.' When you walk in from the South Lawn, it's the room you come into."

As workers scurried to prepare the White House for another group of visitors, the First Lady said farewell. "Bye everyone. Happy holidays. Thanks!"

And as the members of the press corps headed for the exits and cold Washington outdoors, they got a final taste of this year's White House holiday décor - a hall decked with cheerful Christmas garlands and attended by unusual armed guards: three-meter-tall toy nutcracker soldiers from The Nutcracker ballet.