O Christmas tree: Decorations involving 15 trees transform Hartselle home for holidays

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

When asked to give advice to those new to decorating for the holidays, Dena Stephenson — a self-described “non-recovering Christmasaholic” — said, without hesitation, “Don’t do it.”

Then she laughed.

“Seriously, do what you can manage and then try to stop, but you might not be able to stop, because once you start, it’s hard to stop,” the 64-year-old Stephenson said, “That’s advice I’d give to others, but I don’t take myself.”

Every December, George and Dena Stephenson’s two-story historic colonial home in Hartselle transforms into a winter wonderland with 15 Christmas trees, hundreds of ornaments, three decorated mantles and an outdoor manger scene.

“I call myself a non-recovering Christmasaholic because I’m not even trying to recover,” Stephenson said. “I love Christmas and I love decorating. It’s a lot of work, but it makes me so happy, because of the warmth and love the decorations bring.”

Each decoration in the home represents a special memory for the family.

In the Stephensons’ formal living room stands the family’s main tree — a typical traditional Christmas tree with a conglomeration of special ornaments.

There is the pacifier the Stephensons’ son used as an infant, ornaments the Stephensons bought during their travels, crystal ornaments Dena Stephenson’s brother gifts her every year and the Holly Hobbie ornament Dena Stephenson’s grandmother made her.

“Even though the Holly Hobbie ornament is the least impressive ornament in my bag, because of its meaning, it is placed front and center,” Stephenson said. “All of the ornaments, to me, have a special meaning. There are no random ornaments.”

The other trees are decorated with specific themes.

There is the Santa Claus tree with Santa Claus ribbon, the elf tree, the fruit tree in the dining room, the red-and-green tree in the breakfast room, the holiday photo tree in the foyer, the turquoise-and-silver tree in the master bedroom, the gold tree, the black tree with silver ornaments, an Auburn tree in the Auburn room and a nostalgic silver tree with a color wheel.

Meeda Bosse, Stephenson’s daughter, bought the silver tree as a surprise for her mother. It is the type of tree that adorned Stephenson’s childhood home.

“When I was a child, we didn’t decorate much for Christmas. We had one tree. It was the silver Christmas tree you had to put each branch on that had a color wheel and was decorated with red balls. That’s all we did,” Stephenson said.

When George and Dena married, they decided to cut down a live cedar tree at the Stephenson’s dairy farm at Cedar Cove. After four years of George getting sick every Christmas season, they realized he was allergic to the live tree.

“That put an end to the decorating, temporarily,” Stephenson said.

Alternative trees

With the rise in popularity of artificial trees, the Stephensons began decorating again.

“Some people call them ‘fake,’” Stephenson said, whispering the word “fake.” “I don’t like that word. I call them reusable. The first year we got a reusable tree, I thought, ‘Well, gosh, I can do two trees.’ It just grew and grew and grew. I never thought it would ever grow to be 15.”

Decorating for the holidays, which takes dozens of hours and typically begins in early November, represents a feat for Stephenson, who employs the assistance of friends and family.

“It is quite the ordeal. The first thing we have to do is bring all the trees, which are in the basement covered with plastic covers, upstairs. My husband lays them out in the yard. Then we have to move the tables, chairs and cabinets to the basement so there is room for the trees,” Stephenson said.

Then comes adorning the trees with ribbon and ornaments.

“I used to decorate during the Iron Bowl. People said I could decorate four trees during the Iron Bowl because I was so nervous and just had to do something. I can’t wait until the Iron Bowl now because there are just too many trees. That’s too bad because it was a nice distraction,” Stephenson said.

Along with the family ornaments on the main tree, special decorations include the handmade Auburn ornaments George received from the Tigerettes while playing football for Auburn, and the holiday photograph cards the Stephensons receive each year.

“I got this idea from Southern Living. I hated throwing the photo cards away because they’re great pictures and I would get them from the same people every year, so I get to see their families grow,” Stephenson said. “I save the photo cards and hang them on the stairwell as decorations.”

Family tradition

For decorating ideas, Stephenson typically turns to home décor magazines.

“If you were to ask people to describe me, no one would say creative. I’m not artistic. I can’t sing. I can’t play the piano. But, I do love looking at magazines and get ideas and am good at replicating what I see,” Stephenson said.

One of those ideas involved decorating a tree with her daughter’s running memorabilia. The tree featured bibs and ribbons as ornaments, a cape from the New York City Marathon as a skirt and a pair of running shoes at the base of the tree.

The tree now stands at Meeda Bosse’s home, who lives with her husband, Jonathan, next door to her parents.

“I think I’ve definitely passed down my love for decorating to Meeda. How many trees do you have in your home?” Stephenson called out to her daughter.

“Four,” Bosse answered.

“And my son-in-law, God bless him, is like me,” Stephenson said. “He made a 5-foot tall manger scene out of plywood. Every year, he puts the manger scene in our paddle boat and rows it over to the island in the middle of the pond. It is beautiful. I’ve had people say that they have brought family members from other cities just to see it. It really is a beautiful testament for the Christmas season.”

Street view

The home’s outdoor decorations also include a wreath on the door and lights around the boxwoods.

“It’s important to me that people can see the indoor and outdoor decorations from the road,” Stephenson said. “If we go to the trouble of decorating, I want to share it with as many people as possible.”

The decorations come down as soon after Christmas Day as possible. The Stephensons dust and place the ornaments in bins covered with trash bags and labeled with the room they will return to next Christmas. They spray the trees with Lysol before bagging them up and taking them to the basement.

“I keep telling myself that we’re getting older and won’t be able to keep doing this, but once I’ve seen the room decorated, I can’t then not do it. If I didn’t decorate, I would miss it too much. Going from room to room and seeing a beautiful tree that sparkles is uplifting for me,” Stephenson said. “As much as I love decorating for the holiday, as a Christian, I love Christmas for its meaning. It is a very special time of year.”