Lucky for us, each holiday season we hear from readers insisting they know someone who has “the best” holiday décor. Of course, it’s our job to explore these tips. Before the glass and garland were packed up last season, we visited four acclaimed holiday home decorators to learn how they impart the meaning of the season. Here, they share their visions to inspire yours.
Hosts of Christmas Past
Margaret and Dennis Haire’s love of vintage Christmas items fills their home and fuels a small business By Jane McManus • Photos by Heather Gray and Hannah Jay
Margaret Haire pointed to a circa-1915 figurine of a small boy, dressed in red cotton batting, pushing an oversize snowball that once held Christmas candy or a surprise for a child.
“This is probably my favorite,” Margaret says, “because his face is so sweet. I just like the simplicity of it.”
The figurine is one of hundreds of mostly German antique Christmas ornaments and figurines that Margaret and her husband, Dennis, have collected since the early 1980s.
Working together, it takes Margaret and Dennis about three weeks to unpack and display their entire collection.
“And I refuse to do it until after Thanksgiving,” Margaret adds emphatically. “I love Thanksgiving.”
Margaret’s favorite ornament is one of a number of Heubach figurines the couple has collected. Heubachs were produced in Germany in the early 1900s and are noted for their active poses and hand-painted bisque faces. According to Margaret, the doll heads were produced at a factory. German housewives then wrapped pipe stems around a core made of glue and saw dust and then covered the stems and core with cotton batting to create a figurine. Heubach figurines almost exclusively depicted actions taking place in the snow, she says.
“It was a cottage industry,” Margaret says. “It’s so interesting. It’s whimsical.”
“The fact they’re still around 100 years later and they’re so fragile,” Dennis adds, means that the Heubach figurines have stood the test of time.
Margaret’s interest in collecting antique Christmas ornaments is rooted in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, where she has fond memories of creating ornaments with her grandmother, also named Margaret.
“I still have a few on my tree,” she says.
Margaret started off collecting German glass ornaments before moving into collecting Santa Claus figures.
The collection of Santa Claus figurines shows the evolution of a lean, stern German Father Christmas with a long coat from the 1880s to around 1900, to when Santa became a little more rotund in the era after World War I. His coat also was shorter, “and he wasn’t quite so stern,” Margaret says.
National distribution of newspapers and magazines and the 1823 publication of the poem, “The Night Before Christmas” progressing through Coca Cola ads of the 1930s reshaped the American public’s image of St. Nicholas.
A Santa from the early 1880s has blue eyes, wears a long, hooded robe, and sports a white beard made of rabbit fur. Another Santa, sitting atop a cotton snowball, has a shorter coat and dates to the 1920s. Many of these ornaments contained candy.
“It was both a decorative and practical use,” Margaret says.
Another Santa rides a donkey whose head nods. “Nodders” — large Santa figurines — often were used in department store windows to draw attention. “The German craftsmanship is beautiful,” Margaret says.
Dennis points to a horse-drawn wooden cart, which is particularly rare. The cart, made of wooden rails, holds the sign referring to Santa Claus as “Dealer in Good Things.” Margaret added a circa-1918 Santa candy container standing on the back of the cart among a collection of Christmas presents. Dennis, who thinks the cart dates to 1903, says he discovered a newspaper ad rolled inside the Santa advertising two suits with a coat for $22.85.
A hand-carved music box dating to the 1950s was a gift to Margaret from her mother Mary Margaret Reynolds Burt’s best friend shortly after Margaret’s birth. The music box still plays the German Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum.” On top, Father Christmas leads a group of angels celebrating the arrival of St. Nicholas. The celebration of St. Nicholas Day remains a German tradition.
Margaret and Dennis also have collected feather trees in different sizes. Margaret says the trees were made with dyed goose feathers that were then attached to wire branches. The branches were wrapped around a paper-covered wooden trunk and were then placed in a painted wooden base.
Feather trees were created to resemble the white pines of northern Germany, according to Margaret. The branches were sparse and spaced widely apart, which showcased glass ornaments.
The trees became popular in the United States when Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901 after President William McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt, a conservationist, not only promoted the use of feather trees but also advanced the development of artificial trees and Christmas tree farms out of concern for preserving the country’s forests.
Though most of the couple’s Christmas collection spends the off-season in storage, a few things remain on display all year.
An antique corner cupboard in the library of the home on Evansville’s East Side displays a group of Heubach child figurines and Santas playing in the snow. “I think that is so cute,” Margaret says.
From a high shelf, several Belsnickel candy containers and bottle brush trees keep a stern watch over activities in the library. German immigrants settling in Pennsylvania brought with them the image of the Pelze-Nicol (Nicholas in Fur), the “alter ego” of St. Nicholas who would leave switches or coal for misbehaving children to remind them of their naughty deeds. Though the pronunciation was altered to “Belsnickel,” he continued to visit children at Christmas time.
When asked why they enjoy having such a large collection of Christmas decorations, Margaret says it’s because she thinks “they are beautiful and unique.”
“Who wouldn’t want a Santa Claus on a polar bear?” Dennis adds.
Margaret and Dennis also had a small business that bought and sold Christmas decorations, and so the items were an investment, as well.
“I also love that it’s an expression of the true meaning of Christmas,” Margaret says. “St. Nicholas initially represented secret, selfless giving and generosity, and the Protestant Reformation sought to point to Christ, the ultimate gift to mankind.”
Where Memories Are Made By Jane McManus
The work table in Evansville resident Margaret Haire’s basement is strewn with a collection of oddities, including disembodied dolls’ legs, pieces of old rabbit fur, and small vintage bells.
“She reuses old vintage things to create a new decoration,” says her husband, Dennis. “It creates an item that has never been made.”
Margaret and her husband have been serious collectors of antique German Christmas decorations since the early 1980s. Around 1990, she began making small replicas, giving some as gifts. The couple then wondered if people might be interested in buying some of Margaret’s creations.
“The antique Christmas ornaments had become so expensive, I thought there must be a market for people who wanted to buy affordable quality recreations,” she says.
From that, “Maggie’s Memories” — named after the couple’s daughter, who is a fourth generation — was born. She signed a licensing agreement with a distributor and, in 2007, the first offerings of “Maggie’s Memories” went on sale to retailers across the U.S. and Canada.
In 2011, four years after the launch, Early American Life magazine included Margaret’s work in its Directory of Traditional American Crafts.
Each year, Margaret creates several new Christmas decorations, putting the prototypes together in her basement. The 2013 models include a little girl in a dark red snow suit, holding a candle and a wreath, as well as a young boy holding a bell, standing next to a small house constructed from a hollowed tree trunk, the inside of which can be lit with a battery-operated candle.
“We think about it throughout the year and look for pieces,” Margaret says. “It makes something more unique and in a less expensive way.”
In one of her creations, Margaret re-purposed a pencil into a candle and turned an old planter vase into a ceramic sled. She and Dennis create the pieces with the help of Delores Coomes, an Evansville resident who works for the couple.
Margaret will be available to sign her creations on Dec. 14 at Rose Marie’s at Lea Matthews Furniture & Interiors from noon-2 p.m. and 3 p.m.-5 p.m. Also, Emanuele Fontanini, a fourth generation member of the House of Fontanini, creators of the Fontanini nativities, will be available to sign any Fontanini nativity set purchased during the event
Maggie’s Memories collectibles are sold at Rose Marie’s at Lea Matthews Furniture & Interiors; Gehlhausen Floral; La Petite Demoiselle in Evansville; T Marie’s in Newburgh, Ind.; and at Memories Past & Present in Henderson, Ky., as well as online at maggiesmemories.com.
Stacy and Aaron Gries add something new to their Christmas memories each year
By Jane McManus • Photos by Will Steward
For Stacy Gries, Christmas is about combining the unexpected with tradition.
“I love whimsical,” she says, sitting in the East Side Evansville home she shares with her three children and husband, Dr. Aaron Gries, an anesthesiologist. “Whimsical is everywhere.”
At the Gries’ house, the holiday season means Christmas decorations are everywhere. Beginning around the first of November, Stacy and decorator Cindee Bell spend at least two weeks filling the house with holiday cheer. Just how much Christmas stuff does Stacy have?
“I have a ton,” she says, adding a large part of the collection was purchased from SugarBakers Home Fashions, an Evansville interior design store. “Just over the years, we started collecting things.”
The collection includes 15 artificial Christmas trees, one for each room in the house.
“They’re not big,” says Stacy, who stores the trees in a large room in the basement. “But every single room has one.”
The tree nicknamed “the patient tree” is one of Stacy’s favorites. In 1995, she and Aaron were living in Indianapolis. Aaron was in medical school and Stacy worked as a dental hygienist. Stacy purchased a small artificial Christmas tree, the couple’s first, for $200.
“We were so excited,” says Stacy, of their first tree. Then an unexpectedly high utility bill arrived.
“We just couldn’t afford both,” says Stacy, who met Aaron when both were attending Reitz Memorial High School. “So we took the tree back.”
Stacy relayed the story, and her disappointment, to one of her patients. Two days later, the same tree was delivered to her door.
“Is that not a true miracle of Christmas?” she asks.
Even though it now shows some signs of age, no matter how tattered the tree becomes, “it’s not going anywhere,” Stacy adds.
A large green “Believe” ornament has been added to the “patient tree.”
“I got that just because that is such a miracle tree,” she says.
Two years ago, the Gries family moved to their new home on the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Boeke Road. She was familiar with the house because previous owners were friends, and “I love the floor plan,” she says. “We can live on the first floor.”
The house is much different than the family’s previous home at the intersection of Lant Circle and Bayard Park Drive (featured in Evansville Living in July/August 2006). It had five full stairways, tall ceilings, and was easily able to accommodate the tallest Christmas tree in the Gries collection.
But a 12-foot Christmas tree wasn’t going to fit into their new house, and Stacy didn’t want a replacement. So Bell and Cindee’s sister, Kim Coslett, tweaked four feet from the pre-lit tree, creating a special top to hide the work they had done.
“They worked on that tree for a long time,” Stacy says, adding that Bell pleaded with her to buy a new tree instead, yet she refused.
“It’s all about maintaining and continuing the tradition,” Stacy says. “When I look at that tree, I still think of the mornings of how the kids got their presents out at the house at Lant Circle, and I just always want to have that memory. I’d rather have an old raggedy tree that we’ve had for years than get a new one (without any emotional significance.)”
Another tree — this one dubbed “the Bunco Group tree” — is decorated with miniature shoes. Stacy started a card group about six years ago and decided to surprise the members last holiday season.
“This past year, I went out and bought a shoe to fit every person’s personality,” she says. “All 18 of them. I made it a game. I held up a shoe and everyone had to guess who it was. I nailed every single personality.”
But Christmas trees aren’t the only decoration Stacy has in multiples.
Nineteen Santa dolls line the stairway, a collection Stacy began when she and Aaron were married in 1994. Her favorite is a Santa dressed head to toe in white, complete with snowshoes.
“He reminds me of winter and snow on Christmas morning,” she says.
A bigger-than-life Santa is a permanent fixture in the Gries’ dining room, overlooking Boeke Road.
“The reason he stays, honestly, is he weighs 300 pounds,” Stacy says. “We tell the kids Santa is watching them all year round.”
The Grieses have three boys. Sam is an eighth-grader at Christ the King Catholic School. Teddy and Charlie are fifth- and second-graders, respectively, both at St. Benedict Elementary School.
Stacy wants her children to have the same warm memories of Christmas traditions that she does. And it is not just about decorating; the holiday has a special meaning for her.
“The kids are out of school,” she says. “There’s something about the fireplace and them running out on Christmas morning.”
Five stockings that Stacy purchased before the couple had children hang over the fireplace.
A mischievous-looking elf sits on the mantel. But he is larger than an Elf on the Shelf, a doll that has the magical ability to tell Santa about good and bad behavior.
“My boys wanted an Elf on the Shelf on steroids,” Stacy says. “They call him the foreman of the little one.”
Stacy has saved all the gingerbread houses that her children made in preschool, has framed the artwork they brought home that incorporates snow, and makes it all part of the Christmas decorations.
“That’s the kind of stuff I just love,” she says. “I’m all about making memories.”
Local designer helps Newburgh spotlight the best of their holiday collections
By Theresa Scheller • Photos by Jerry Butts
Decorating for the holidays is more than just a tradition for Rosemary and Raymond De Cook. For Rosemary, the holidays are a family affair that remind her of her home country of Australia.
“It’s very important that I go all out and share with those we are close to,” she says of their home on Waterford Place in Newburgh, Ind. The couple moved to Newburgh from St. Louis in December 1993 when Raymond was offered a new job. At that time, they did not know a soul. Yet that soon changed thanks to some very friendly neighbors who quickly involved them in the community. The De Cooks are now experts at decorating their own home. They also enjoy entertaining friends and family throughout the holiday, thanks to a little help from Rosemary’s designer.
Troy Wells works full-time as the manager of The Gap at Eastland Mall and is one of Rosemary’s close friends. “He knows how to give anything that ‘wow’ factor,” she says. Rosemary had seen some of his gorgeous work and simply asked him to help her out around her house. “He is easy to work with, mostly using what I already had, with just a few extras such as ribbons and lights,” she says. Her own collection of items includes red ribbons, sprigs of holly, and well-placed candles. “I want my guests to feel as if I’ve transported them into a winter wonderland when they enter our home,” she says.
Long a fan of the holiday season, Rosemary has gathered a modest collection of Santas from her travels with her husband. “If they grab my attention and appear unique and different, I will find a place in my home for them,” Rosemary says. As a native of a former British colony, she has experienced certain traditions that she recognized when she twice visited England. “I do admit that I love the vintage-looking Santas,” she says. “It takes me back to how Christmas may have been in England long ago.”
The 12 Trees of Christmas
Christmas isn’t just one day for the Wagmeister family
By Kirsten Wagmeister • Photos by Jerry Butts
Beginning in early November, every inch of our home is transformed into a glittering wonderland. Nothing is left undecorated, from the fireplace mantel, to the chandeliers, to each of the 12 trees in our house. Sounds excessive? It’s not quite enough to suit my seasonal sense of glee. Each tree is unique to the room it resides in, and since there are 12 days of Christmas, I believe there are at least that many types of trees that one can bedeck. By October, my decorating schedule is carefully plotted out. One might think a house as holidayish as ours would take an army a month to assemble, but with the right frame of mind, a sturdy ladder, and some specially selected holiday tunes, everything comes together in just one week’s time.
The foyer tree is nestled against the stairway banister, which is decorated with greenery, gold and red bows, red berries, and artificial magnolias. This 9-foot-tall family tree is adorned with ornaments from my childhood, some made by our now-grown children, and those gifted to us over the years. Nearly 100 wooden ornaments hand cut and painted by my late grandfather hang on this tree’s branches. It is the tree under which our gifts are still laid out by Santa on Christmas Eve.
Our other trees range in size from 3 feet to 7 ½ feet tall. The study is home to a tree dedicated to my husband, Lee. Since he is an avid golfer, it holds golf-related ornaments interspersed with Dr. Santas and large hearts symbolizing his profession as a heart surgeon. Daughter Sarah’s tree is pink, decorated to match the colors of her bedroom. Son Aaron’s tree holds more of my late grandfather’s ornaments along with those depicting Aaron’s hobbies and special interests. He plays saxophone for the Castle High School Marching Knights, so a glittering instrument sits atop his tree instead of a star.
A kitchen tree holds rambunctious elves that drink coffee, bake cookies, and sip champagne. The family room tree is more rustic, complementing the room’s colors. Other trees in the house celebrate wine with lush grapes, salute my love of birds, or pay homage to winter with snowmen. The ornaments are stored in special crates in our large storeroom and are carefully (and wistfully) packed away each January.