Holiday decorating to a new level
By Amanda Bergen
Photographs by Rana Faure
Christmas is a five-sense extravaganza at Cheryl Thomsen’s Bedford home. As soon as you walk through the door you are transported into a happy childhood memory infused with gingerbread men, colorful stockings, and the piney scent of Christmas. Even if it isn’t your memory, it is Thomsen’s and she wants to share the idyllic experience with you. “When people come in I want them to feel like they’re stepping into another world, another place, so for that day they can be living a little fantasy,” says Thomsen.
For her, the journey starts with a trip to the attic. Pulling down the narrow staircase from the ceiling, she warns that the collection of decorations might be a little overwhelming. Indeed, the beam of the flashlight illuminates a large, unfinished room that is no less than three-quarters filled with Christmas decorations. There are at least thirty enormous boxes, rows of hangers draped with ribbons, artificial greenery, strings of lights, and random trinkets that never made it to their designated spots at the end of last season. It may sound chaotic, but it’s not. Thomsen has labeled every single item, down to each individual ribbon and ornament. She staples a slip of paper around each decoration, noting the location it spent Christmas past. “I change it every year a little bit,” says Thomsen. “I’m a little bit of a perfectionist so every bow I tie has to be turned just right.”
She starts decorating the day after Thanksgiving, spending the first few days hand-making garlands from pine boughs. The real ones go outside on the fence surrounding the house. “I feel when somebody pulls into the driveway it’s the first thing they see so it’s going to set the feeling for the rest of the environment,” she says. “I try to make it visually stimulating and try to carry that feeling from the outside in, with the same unified, vintage theme throughout.”
A landscape designer, Thomsen has spent 45 years laboring in her own gardens that border the Mianus River, including laying stone and building fences herself. The end result is a strikingly gorgeous garden, although not this time of the year. She has planted mostly evergreens and flood tolerant flora to withstand overflow from both the river and the creek that meander through the yard. Hidden bridges appear here and there, and romantic pathways lead to small rock gardens. In the cold winter months, especially at Christmas time, the setting is worthy of Currier & Ives.
Inside, Thomsen has switched to artificial greenery for environmental and practical reasons. Still, it’s the finest fake stuff available. “It looks so real people go up and touch it and say, ‘This isn’t artificial!’” she says. “And believe it or not, needles still fall off the fake stuff.” Garlands and ribbons adorn any possible surface: over the mantle, around mirrors, on top of a tea cart and tucked behind pictures.
The nine-foot tree is also artificial but could easily pass for the real thing. As a landscape designer, Thomsen knows well how branches hang and she spends hours bending and shaping so the tree looks like it came from a snowy, enchanted forest. When her daughter lived at home, Thomsen always put up a ten foot, live tree in the living room, but eventually it became too cumbersome. “It became such an effort to find somebody to put it in the stand, and then one year it was so heavy it crushed the stand so I had to put screws in the ceiling to keep it upright,” she recalls. “I had to get a stand that had chains on it.”
The sense of tradition in the house is as strong as the smell of warm Christmas cookies made with her grandmother’s old-world recipes. Every ornament on the tree has a story and Thomsen is sure to remember it as she hangs the treasured piece. Most were gifts and she takes a moment to think about the person who gave it to her and what they’ve done together. The presents under the tree look like giant jewels draped in rich shades of purple and antique gold, and topped with elaborate ribbon confections. “It’s not only buying a special gift for someone, but also trying to make it look beautiful so it makes the whole process special for them,” says Thomsen.
When every little thing has been hung with care and the cookie tins are filled to bursting, Thomsen takes advantage of her handy work. “At night I turn all the Christmas lights on. Every room has a tree of a certain size and all the lights are on dimmers. It gives it a real ethereal feeling, like something special is going to happen, like a child waiting for Santa Claus.”
Although she loves the festive trappings of the holiday, Thomsen feels the religious significance of Christmas is most important. “I have all the decorations so obviously I play into the commercialism to a degree,” she says, “but that day I try to keep it about the religious aspect.”
Following a tradition started by her mother, every year Thomsen sits down with whomever is enjoying the holiday at her house, lights a candle on a little cupcake and sings “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.