Crazy for Christmas

Gail and Don Harrison’s home celebrates Christmas in every room

By Louise Hudson

Photography by Robert Clark

With dazzling displays of glitter, bling, crystal and sequins, stores cajole shoppers into replacing their decorations each year. But one Columbia homeowner has found a way to incorporate the old with the new and dress up her whole house for the holidays.

“I’m crazy for Christmas,” says Gail Harrison, whose Wildewood home sports six full-sized, fully decorated trees each holiday season. Themed and color coordinated to fit their environment, they include a black and leopard-print motif for the master bedroom; an angel tree in gold, silver, white and crystal in the dining room; a traditional green and red family tree; a hot pink version for Abigail, her daughter; and silver/black and bronze/brown for Biggs and Richard, her sons.


To keep stockings from cluttering the fireplace and making it hard to use, Gail hangs hers from a staircase railing.

But she doesn’t stop at multiple trees. She fills cabinets with Christmas curios, drapes shelves in glittering garlands, adds beads and baubles to chandeliers, adorns mirrors and replaces pictures with Christmas-themed family photos. “I decorate every single room including the dining room, living room, foyer, office, family room, kitchen, all the bedrooms, my office, the TV room, FROG and all the bathrooms,” admits the décor diva.

Most fascinating of all is Gail’s collection of nativity scenes, which are displayed throughout the house. Representing years of family holidays, her nativity collection features a Murano hand-blown glass version from Italy, a coconut-shell creation from Haiti, a hand-knitted woolen nativity from Ecuador and one from Nepal made of recycled wood and cornhusk.
“It all started in 1994 when a friend gave me a nativity from Mexico,” Gail remembers. When the same friend brought an ebony version back from Tanzania, the seed was sown. “It was a totally different representation but just as exquisite, and I loved how the birth of Jesus could be so artistically portrayed in so many different ways. I now have around 100, but my favorite is my family nativity scene. My mother made it in the 1970s of hand-painted ceramic, so it has great sentimental value.”

Guests who attend her annual Mother and Daughter Dessert are entranced as they enter the whimsical wonderland where seasonal scenarios and delectable delicacies vie for their attention. “I want my guests to be able to feast their eyes as well as their stomachs,” Gail says. To add to the chocolate strawberries and homemade holiday fare, she created a Candy Bar last year. It was a bountiful buffet of red and green candy in glass jars intertwined with coordinated netting.

In order to accommodate all of her holiday decorations, Gail has to purge her home of other pictures and knick knacks to avoid clutter. She had a crawl space constructed over her garage specifically to store her vast collection of decorations and to house what she must put away to make room. Each year, unpacking, de-cluttering and installing everything is a three-week process which she begins right after Halloween. She is aided in the work by her children. Don, her husband, sets up the exterior lighting. And she is coached by designer Renee Forrester, her go-to-gal for interior renovations as well as seasonal accents.

Founder of RF Designs, Renee creates classy Christmas décor for more than 50 families in Columbia and Lexington each year. But few of them have quite so much dazzling detail as Gail. “We work straight for about 14 hours on it, from 9 a.m. to midnight and sometimes even another half day,” says Renee. When they first teamed up in 2004, it used to take longer, but Gail was a ready pupil and now does most of the work herself. “I don’t like it cookie cutter, the same each year. I like to switch some of it around,” says Renee, who adds new inspiration each season.

The deft decorator has some great tips anyone can use to make the most of holiday decorations. She recommends using greenery, lighting and elevation to add more drama to nativity scenes, Christmas villages, nutcrackers or centerpieces. She advocates using tulle, mesh, beads, feathers and garlands – in fact any embellishments available from craft or sewing stores – on surfaces, mirrors, trees and tables.

She encourages her clients to sort through photo albums, retrieving seasonal snapshots to use around the house. “That’s my favorite thing, all those old photos with the kids sitting on Santa’s knee. Kids just love seeing what they looked like when they were younger,” says Renee.

Stockings can clutter up a fireplace, preventing it from being used. Instead, incorporate them into a staircase railing, suspended from garlands woven with lights and ribbons. Dining table centerpieces are often an obstruction during meals, so Renee suggests using a garland running down the center of the table. Candles can be interspersed, surrounded by beads, baubles and lights. She adds mirrors beneath everything to multiply the glittery effect. “I always use twinkle lights too,” she says. “I put them somewhere in every house I decorate.” Gold or silver chargers can also enhance the opulence of the table setting.

Elevation is a great method for creating interest and focus. “You can flip over a crystal dish, for example, and put a candle on top of it,” Renee explains. “And when you dress your mantle, you can put the garland at the front and place decorations behind it on top of something – canned foods or Tupperware containers – so the candles or baubles stand out above the garland. You can backlight it all with twinkle lights.”

Her top tip for tree dressing is to add more light. “Trees usually come pre-lit now, but there is often not enough light,” she says. “I weave twinkle lights into a tree so when it is decorated the twinkle adds brightness and character.” Ribbons and mesh also help to bulk up the body of the tree, giving baubles and decorations more prominence at the tips of the branches. And accents such as glittery sprigs, feathers and silk or real flowers give a professional panache.

To top her trees, Gail opts for angels, which Renee adds to with flamboyant flair. “We have the whole Las Vegas headdress with feathers and silver and gold leaves, sprays and ribbons,” she explains.

In this environmentally aware era, Renee’s advice is never throw anything “Christmassy” away: “Re-use, re-cycle and re-purpose,” she says. “When you change your color schemes, don’t throw things away and replace; keep the old stuff and re-use or renovate it.” Any leftover ornaments can be used to embellish gift-wrapping, because when it comes to Christmas, there is no such thing as too much bling!

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