On the days following Thanksgiving, many of us show our appreciation and excitement for the Christmas season through holiday decorating. For most, the items we’ve tucked away each year are more than just lights and trees. Our collections begin to take on special meaning the more we add to them and the longer we’ve had them. It isn’t about recovering seasonal items from storage that we like to have and love to look at — and it’s not just a hobby. It’s the special meaning, memories and traditions created among these items that encourage us to hold on to them indefinitely.
This year, three Winterset residents began their holiday decorating routines as usual, but took the extra time to reflect on some of the most prized and nostalgic treasures that make their Christmas unique.
Deck The Halls
Kathy Penner is a self-proclaimed “ornament addict.” She has amassed hundreds throughout the years, and what she doesn’t have on hand she creates with various treasures from her collections. She’ll start with a regular sparkly Christmas ornament but adds some of her own charms and trinkets to make a custom design.
“I’m a visual person,” she explains. “I have an idea in my head of what I want certain things to look like and that finished product makes it all worth it.”
Penner has decked out her house for Christmas for as long as she can remember. Her passion for old-fashioned and old-world things began 30 years ago when she worked in a shop in Kansas that stocked the items. It was there she found her niche. Her love for Christmas stems long before that, however. She remembers making ornaments and baking with her boys when they were young and the happiness those moments brought her.
“I really just enjoy the feeling of Christmas,” she says. “Everybody gets excited for it — the family traditions, decorating, all of it. I think about Christmas all year round when I’m shopping or at shows.”
Penner is well-known around town for her impressive Christmas décor and eye for design. So much that some businesses and homeowners ask for her opinions and help with their own displays. She has years of collecting under her belt and still visits her favorite stores, auctions and junk shows for more. In her opinion, you can never have too many Christmas pieces to choose from.
Currently, Penner has mixed and matched many of her items to create themes in each of the rooms of the 1906 farmhouse she owns with her husband Larry. All of the rooms are also adorned with a full Christmas tree. The living room has a “French-religious” feel to it. Beautiful garland, greenery, warm hues of brown, silver and gold ornaments, candles and bows complement the European artwork and statue on the fireplace mantel. This room is Penner’s favorite this year. She found the majority of the mantel items at a junk bonanza, where she proudly won the European artwork.
In the stairwell, junk angels (made by Penner’s good friend Nicole Kems), vintage airplane toys, ice skates and 1940s era automobiles accent the space. The dining room is a reindeer-themed collection with old, replica and new pieces. Almost 40 Santas are displayed throughout the home — including the impressive Woodland Santa Penner made with pine cones and moss.
Penner has found a clever way to keep the Christmas spirit alive before and after the holidays. Snowflakes and angels — or her “winterscape,” as she titled it — adds seasonal charm in her kitchen every year until spring.
Hark The Herald Angels Sing
Nicole Kems says her creative voyage has “definitely been a journey.” Today she spends the majority of her time creating, crafting and designing. Her appreciation for antique items began in college.
“I was studying the history of costumes and began collecting 1920s items,” she says. “I started finding notions, baubles, buttons and old parts.”
During the holiday season, Kems’ handmade junk angels and custom ornaments are distinctive and elegant additions to her home and tree décor. For her, no ordinary ornament will do. Instead, she fashions angel ornaments using the end of decorative silverware from her many collections. She then adds wood spools with vintage and antique jewelry for embellishments — she says earrings from the 1980s and rhinestone jewelry make great wings.
Her larger junk angels consist of antique table legs and banister railing parts. The wings and detail pieces vary from the backs of chairs, metal brackets or silverplate trivets. Kems adds an old wall clock, alarm clock or other various parts with patina and character for the face. These items from her collections were gathered from auctions, tag sales, antique shows and stores — and she has plenty to choose from.
“Everywhere I am, I am hunting for angel parts,” she explains. “I have buckets in my studio full of junk heads, junk wings and objects for the bodies. I sort through my many baubles to find just the right combination and try to create various angels for different décor. Some of the angels are fancy, some sassy and some industrial.”
Another Christmas treasure? Angels made from old door plates, rhinestone jewelry, crowns, pocket watches and large washers. Kems was once asked to create a junk angel with an antique pocket watch, which she says was an honor and piqued her interest in heirloom preservation.
“The first angel I made came about from all my objects laying on the floor and me just randomly putting stuff together. My inspiration is to look for ways to preserve history with an artistic flair,” she says. “I love the challenge of figuring out how to put the objects together — it’s like a puzzle to me.”
For Kems’ family, creating runs in the blood. Her husband, Jason, helps with the woodcutting while her son, Trevor, sometimes runs the drill press and son, Corbin, bolts the angels together.
“My family is great at spotting objects at auctions and sales that they know I would love to use” she adds.
Kems’ mother has always been her biggest inspiration. She took her to craft shows at an early age, while her father taught her about mechanical supplies, junk altering and problem-solving.
The reward of producing items that make people smile will never get old for Kems, and her affection for angels goes hand in hand with her true feelings about the Christmas season.
“I love that Christmas gives people hope and joy and that we make time to share that with our families to celebrate Christ’s birth,” she says. “It’s the reason for the season.”
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
Shirley Roach adores all things vintage, and it’s evident in many of her personal Christmas collections.
“I love old,” she explains. “It became especially important when we moved into our home, because I wanted my décor to be as close to the original as possible.”
Roach’s 1886 Victorian home features a 10-foot Christmas tree full of 1900s ornaments that she has gathered for more than 24 years from auctions and sales — some even from old homes in Winterset. For the rest of her trees, she uses German-made feather trees. Beautifully displayed ornaments fill the space between branches on these special 100-year-old antiques.
Roach wants every item in her home at Christmas time to tell a story.
“There is so much character and many things to learn from vintage items,” she says. “My feather trees are made of goose feathers because in Germany there was a ban on tree cutting, so people wrapped goose feathers around wire for Christmas.”
Roach chose many early 1900s items specifically for her Christmas displays, including a paper mache deer and sleigh, old feather tree candy boxes and German-made wind-up toys. These items were considered luxuries during their respective eras.
It’s no secret that Roach’s favorite Christmas items are her vintage Santas. She lights up when she explains how each one made their way into her home. Many of her antique “masked face” Santas were made as early as 1910 and are stuffed with straw. Others hail from the 1940s and 1950s. Her most-beloved Santa came from and old department store and dons a top hat.
Roach’s family will get the chance to experience her historic winter wonderland again this year, when she and husband Bill host Christmas. For her, these family traditions are truly her most prized-possessions.
“Family is my favorite thing,” she says. “My kids and grandkids come here, and we play games and just enjoy each other’s company.”