Pinecones, berries and boughs. For Lisa Hellman and her family, decorating inspiration can be found right in their own backyard.
By Sarah Stebbins
For Lisa and Mark Hellman, there's no place like home for the holidays, especially when it's a bright and spacious 100-year-old farmhouse in rural Sullivan County, New York. Never mind that when they bought the house it was an abandoned wreck with peeling shingles and a falling-down porch. Or that it took five years of from-the-ground-up renovations to transform it into a destination for family and friends.
"I liked that the house was something we could put our mark on and make our own," says Lisa, a fashion executive and mom to Avery, 8, and Owen, 4. "We had a vision of everyone coming to celebrate Christmas and of creating memories with our kids." The couple's parents stay for several days in guest rooms carved out for them on the third floor. And neighbors are always dropping by for homemade granola, spicy nuts and salted caramels made by Lisa and Avery each year to give as gifts. "I never wanted a house where people felt like they had to call first."
To keep the decor relaxed, Lisa relies on a simple palette of red, green and gold. "At Christmastime, I especially want to bring the outdoors in," she says. You can often find the family canvassing the property for things like antlers—which Lisa displays with boughs, pomegranates and candles—or trekking through the snow in search of the perfect tree. "Every year we look until we find the just-right one to cut down," says Lisa. "Traditions are important to me."
A tree decorated with snowflake ornaments, wooden acorns and felt leaves sets a festive scene on the Hellmans' front porch. Indoors, on the mantel sprigs of cedar and pine in a birch bark container continue the rustic theme.
A flock of glass bird ornaments hangs from the wrought iron chandelier above the antique pine dining table, a housewarming gift from Lisa's mother. Amaryllis, roses and berries arranged in mismatched silver vessels are an easy centerpiece.
Avery and Owen on the staircase, which is decked out with removable snowflake decals and an evergreen garland. About 200 landscape paintings, bought by the couple at flea markets and tag sales over the years, hang on the walls of the entryway. "We had a rule that each one must picture a house and can't cost more than $100," says Lisa. "All together, it's an easy way to make a big statement with inexpensive art."
"My decorating gets inspiration from the things we've collected as a family," says Lisa. "Especially at Christmas."
On special occasions, like Christmas, Lisa sets the table with vintage transferware plates, amber stemware and homespun linens. "My husband jokes that I've never met a piece of china I didn't love," says Lisa, who also collects Spode ivory dishes, white McCoy pottery and vintage Santa mugs. Small gifts double as place cards and boxwood wreaths dress up the backs of dining room chairs.
Put "a little Christmas" in each guest's room. "I'll do a dish of pinecones and gold balls or a potted amaryllis on the dresser. Or once, when my sister came, I strung white lights over her headboard. I want people to experience the holidays as soon as they wake up."
Save jam jars, or purchase a case of Mason jars, and use them to package homemade treats, such as candy or seasoned nuts. Lisa and her daughter trim the containers with raffia, pinecones and jingle bells, and Mark delivers them to the neighbors.
Look for fun ways to get the family involved. Lisa puts a small evergreen on the kitchen table and lets her kids do the decorating with homemade gingerbread men and strings of gumdrops.
Start new traditions, but keep a few of the old. Each year Lisa's mother-in-law makes risalamande, a Danish rice pudding with an almond hidden inside—whoever finds the nut gets a gift. "It's a nice way for us to honor her customs, plus the kids love it."
"Nothing in my house is overly precious," says Lisa. "I want everyone to feel welcome at this time of year and be relaxed."
Throughout the house Lisa adds simple yet meaningful touches. In an upstairs room, she ties a red satin bow on an antique wooden horse, once owned by her mother. And she displays ornaments and mementos inside glass cloches or bell jars—Danish handmade paper dolls from her mother-in-law and vintage Christmas trees are among her favorites.
Lisa and her kids trim the tree with red and brown feather bird ornaments, pinecones and abandoned nests found on the property. "The ornaments are another obsession—I'm probably up to 300 now," says Lisa. She sews a tree skirt from potato sacks and wraps gifts with brown paper, twine and holly. On the coffee table, glass cloches hold treasures.
Lisa and Mark Hellman with their daughter, Avery, and son, Owen.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.