In the 48 years that she has lived in her small Florida cottage on a canopied street in an old established neighborhood in Sarasota, Mary Lou Wingerter Couch’s Christmas decor and traditions haven’t changed, although almost everything else in her life has.
“My decorations, I guess, could be called New England homey,” she said. “I bought this house when I was a recently divorced young mother of two small daughters in 1967; I was drawn to it because of the bay window in the living room, the back yard, the big trees on the street and the way the house looked — so cozy and welcoming.
“My style of Christmas decorating seemed to exactly match the house, and, over the years, friends have said that the house is charming, but never so lovely as it appears at Christmas.”
A tall balsam tree in the living room twinkles with white lights, and there’s a garland of colored glass popcorn and cranberries. Many of the ornaments are one-of-a-kind that the homeowner has collected for decades.
“I look for unusual ornaments all year long when I travel to visit friends in Stowe, Vermont, or upstate New York or to Europe,” Mary Lou said. “Some I’ve found at yard sales. I love big ornaments, and when I take down the tree, I always protect each one in bubble wrap.”
Mary Lou said that when her children were young, the Christmas tree was always a live one and the ornaments tended to be hand-made by the mother and daughters. But, as the girls grew up, went to college and married, the Christmas tree became more of a personal statement of memories and collections.
“As my husband, David, and I have gotten older, a faux pre-lit tree became appealing, and that’s what we have now. It’s easier, and honestly it looks just as wonderful as the live trees. We put it up near the slider that goes out to our screened lanai and pool deck, and when we have holiday parties, we open up the house to the outside and we can accommodate 75 people for a buffet dinner. That’s the advantage of living in Florida, because although our decor may reflect the pine furniture and warm colors of colonial New England, our lifestyle is Sarasota. We’re in the swimming pool every day.”
The angel at the top of the tree is a souvenir from a German Christmas market where Mary Lou shopped on a European vacation.
Besides the big Christmas tree, Mary Lou uses her two bay windows, one in the living room and a smaller one in the dining room, to display collectibles. The big bay holds four large artist-crafted Santa figures. She frames the window with holly garlands. The small bay window is the setting for her Department 56 Snow Village, a collection of miniature buildings and vignettes that depict an ideal Christmas in small-town America of the 1950s.
“The village was more extensive in previous years,” said the homeowner. “But it takes a long time to arrange, especially the lighting, so David and I have downsized, just keeping the pieces that mean the most to us. My daughter Sally, who helped me put up the village this year, has some of the other pieces, and I’m happy that they are part of her Christmas decorating traditions now.”
One house in the village is so similar to the one where Mary Lou grew up that she would never part with it because it bridges her early memories of Christmas in Montclair, New Jersey, with her parents, sister and brother to her present life as a wife and a grandmother of four in Sarasota.
Her other important collection is of Buyers Choice Carolers, an array of figurines dressed as Victorian or Historical Williamsburg carolers all from different walks of life.
“I bought my first one, a baker, when my youngest daughter, Julie, was working as a pastry chef at an inn in Vermont,” Mary Lou said. “Since then, I’ve added one and sometimes two a year. I get them at LuxArt Christmas Traditions here in Sarasota. It’s probably time to stop collecting, but these carolers give me so much pleasure that I can’t. I’ve lost count of how many I have. Some that don’t look particularly Christmasy, like the baker and the flower seller, I leave out all year long on a shelf in the kitchen.”
The Couch family’s color scheme for the holidays is red, green, snow white, cream and touches of gold and silver. David and Mary Lou never considered a tropical theme or pastel colors. “I particularly love bold red plaid for the holidays, and actually all winter long,” admitted Mary Lou. “The dining room chandelier shades are red plaid, my favorite holiday skirt is red plaid and I use plaid table cloths and red plaid fabric throughout the house.”
Her holiday china is Spode in the Christmas Tree pattern. She started with dinner plates many years ago and has added glassware, serving platters, napkins and table accessories all in the same pattern. “It’s is a traditional pattern and not unusual or expensive,” she said. “But, it really says Christmas, and it goes with everything else in the house.” Candles, wreaths, a red front door, outdoor lights, garlands, presents under the tree, Santa needlepoint pillows in wingback chairs and a fire in the fireplace (even if David has to turn down the air conditioning to achieve the ambience) all set the stage for family Christmas Eve dinner after church and a casual buffet on Christmas morning.
Things have changed a lot for Mary Lou Couch over the years. She moved into her Sarasota home as a single working mother. Then she met David Couch and dated him for many years before marrying him eight years ago. Recently, she retired after a long career at the New College Foundation.
“My girls have children who are nearly grown, and every year our Christmas Eve table seems to be minus someone we love,” she said. “This year, we’ll be missing David’s fun-loving sister Phoebe, who passed a few months ago. We all get older and have health issues.
“Still, it’s meaningful to hold on to holiday traditions. It’s a way of celebrating the hopefulness of the season. Our Christmas decorations go up early and stay a long time.
“For me, it’s pure joy.”