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A Collected Christmas
By Carol McGarvey | Photography by Tim Abramowitz
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A dedicated holiday elf decorates everywhere in her home. And we really mean everywhere.

Some people live by the rule that if you bring something new into your home, something old has to go away. Donna Marvin of Johnston, an elf extraordinaire, doesn’t follow that train of thought when it comes to Christmas decorations. “I would somehow feel disloyal if I didn’t use everything,” she says.

The former elementary teacher of 30 years comes by her passion honestly. She grew up in Colby, Wisconsin (yes, where Colby cheese originated). “My family absolutely and always loved Christmas. It’s just who we are.”

When she and her husband, Craig (from Madison, Wisconsin), built their home in Johnston, Donna requested as many surfaces as possible for her Christmas decorating. That meant cabinets that don’t go all the way to the ceiling and extra-long and extra-wide mantels. The nearly 75 neighbors and friends who come to the couple’s annual holiday block party are thrilled by the collections that Donna has amassed.

Starting early

Into the spirit with her are Craig, three grown sons, and a grandson. Luckily, her daughter-in-law is “really into” holiday decorating. Donna is glad she found a kindred spirit. “We start decorating for Christmas right after Halloween and are done by Thanksgiving,” she says. Keep in mind that she also decorates on a smaller scale the family’s home at Sun Valley Lake in southern Iowa, along with a place in Florida, where she decorates with seashell-encrusted trees. And, yes, she’s always looking for new items and ideas throughout the year.

Visitors know they’re at the right home when they hear Christmas music on a sensor that starts playing as they walk up the sidewalk. Donna adds trees to the outside to give a forest effect. Santa himself sits outside when guests are expected. Otherwise, he supervises inside the home.

High over the front door inside are five trees with white twinkle lights. Two trees inside and out flank the door. Over the tops of every window and framed piece of artwork is a holiday trim. At the top of the stairs to the second floor are three trees, reflecting each of the three sons’ interests. And, of course, the banister is decorated in green and gold roping.

The main holiday tree inside the house sparkles with vintage and new bubble lights. A smaller tree in the living room is Donna’s “teacher tree,” chock-full of gifts she received from young students over the years.

Decorated kitchen

The big open kitchen has swags of greenery over the range hood. The soffits are filled with greenery, creating a holiday glow. Three pendant lights over the big island are trimmed with pinecones and more greenery. Snowmen and holiday dishes, mugs, and platters become decorations. Tall and small lighted pencil trees stand at every turn.

In fact, we asked Donna to walk around her home and count the number of trees she has. She returned with the lovely round number of 75.

On a festive holiday table silver bottle trees shine, and red chargers hold Sakura snowmen plates. Sparkly napkin rings accented with greenery, and bows encircle red cloth napkins. Snowmen and candles add glitz. Big red ribbon bows decorate eight upholstered chairs. On the front of the chairs are words that reflect the Marvin family’s take on the holidays: family, friends, joy, believe, peace, hope, rejoice, and love. Snowmen decorate the top of a nearby china cabinet.

In the family room a huge Nativity set fills the large mantel. The set is so large that one must ask just how it gets up there. Remember, Donna designed large mantels for a reason: She actually gets on top of the mantel, which is big enough to walk on, and someone hands the pieces up to her.

In a den/office Donna devotes details to her Scottish heritage and the family name of Lamont. It features photographs of trips to the family castle and, yes, a figurine of Santa wearing a kilt and holding bagpipes.

In a powder room off a hallway Donna takes a refined look and decorates with colorful and textured seashell trees.

Fun zone

The lower level, the fun zone, has even more decorated trees and a huge mantel and entertainment center filled to the brim with teddy bears, Santa Claus figures, and memorabilia from the growing-up years of the three sons.

When extended family members come to celebrate, the teacher spirit in Donna clicks in. “We have competitive ‘reindeer games’ with holiday and family themes for the crowd to play. Plus, there’s even a crafting event in the morning for the women in the family. Everyone gets excited for what we’ll make that day.” She provides supplies, and all make the same holiday decorative item.

After the holidays Donna’s organizing skills play out in boxing up Christmas items in plastic tubs on shelves in the basement. Snowman decorations stay up until Valentine’s Day.

At the Marvin house, a sign says it all: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”


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