Couple love Christmas so much they designed their Sussex home to accommodate decorations

·11 min read

Christmas trees, nutcrackers, snowmen and Christmas villages have adorned the Sussex home of Bill and Terri Mitchell since they were married 21 years ago.

But their love of Christmas started well before then.

“Bill’s first gift to me was an ornament. He gave me a snowman ornament that is hand-painted and it hangs on a little gold stand. He gave it to me on the first Christmas after we started dating,” Terri said.

“That first year Terri saw my Christmas tree and it didn’t have a lot of ornaments on it, so she bought me a bunch of ornaments. They were all whimsical. One of them was a little Santa at a soda fountain,” Bill said.

This love of Christmas was passed down from their families.

“My grandma was huge into Christmas. We would go to Wisconsin Rapids every year to her house,” Bill said. “She went crazy. She had three or four trees, and made all these cookies. Christmas was a huge event for her.”

“It was the same with my grandma,” Terri said. “She was a seamstress, and she would make all these crafts to raise money to get gifts for all her grandchildren. She would always find the perfect gift for everyone. She had trees upstairs and downstairs, put up a lot of decorations, and made lots of cookies.

“It was always big for our mothers, too. My mom had trees upstairs and downstairs,” Terri said.

“My mom made lots of cookies, she decorated every room and had multiple trees,” Bill added.

Over the years, pieces from relatives were handed down to the couple, and they also bought new pieces.

Today the inside of their home is a Christmas wonderland.

Starting after Thanksgiving they set up and decorate three standing trees and four tabletop trees. They also set out a nativity scene, collections of Christmas villages, snowmen, nutcrackers, music boxes, wreaths and garland with the help of their son Nick, 18, who is a senior at Sussex Hamilton High School.

Bill works in IT at Northwestern Mutual but will retire at the end of the year. Terri is a nurse at Paradigm, a case management rehabilitation company.

Bill said they have so much holiday décor it usually takes three days to put it all up.

“We pound through it. We’re tired when we’re done. The two of us do it and Nick helps sometimes. We put on Christmas music and drink eggnog or hot chocolate. We always joke that we are on a seven-step program for Christmas because we are so obsessed,” Bill said.

The Mitchell family from left Terri, holding Snickers, Nick and Bill are shown this month in their extensively decorated Sussex home.
The Mitchell family from left Terri, holding Snickers, Nick and Bill are shown this month in their extensively decorated Sussex home.

The couple said their favorite tree is their largest, a 9-footer in their living room, because it’s decorated with ornaments that bring back fond memories.

“It’s decorated with ornaments from special times in our lives,” Terri said. “When we go on a trip we always buy an ornament, and that’s the tree it goes on. We have Disney ornaments from our trip to Disney World, and ornaments from St. Lucia where we had our honeymoon. We also have ornaments related to special moments in our lives like when we adopted our son, Nick, from South Korea. That one says, ‘Adoption 2003. The child your heart always knew.’ "

A favorite Christmas ornament that represents the adoption of Bill and Terri Mitchell’s son, Nick, is seen on a Christmas tree in the living room at the Mitchells' home. "Celebrate the child your heart always knew," it says.
A favorite Christmas ornament that represents the adoption of Bill and Terri Mitchell’s son, Nick, is seen on a Christmas tree in the living room at the Mitchells' home. "Celebrate the child your heart always knew," it says.

That tree also has photo ornaments she made.

“I made an ornament when my mom died that has a picture of her on it, and each year we take a picture of Nick and put it on an ornament for the tree, but we also give these ornaments to family members. They’re all dated. I also make ornaments with pictures of our nieces and nephews together,” she said.

That tree has white lights, an oversized skirt in blue and white with snowmen on it, and is the spot where gifts for friends are put.

One of their newest trees is a 4-foot tabletop one in the sunroom that is decorated in a Star Trek/Star Wars theme.

“The Starship Enterprise is the tree topper. You turn it on and it plays the theme music from Star Trek and figurines come out. ... It’s kind of geeky and kind of cool too,” Bill said.

“It also has a Star Trek skirt. I had been purchasing Star Trek ornaments online for years because he likes the program, so we decided to do the whole tree last year. … One of them is a Borg ornament. It’s in the shape of a Borg cube from the Star Trek movies. When you turn it on it says, “Enjoy the holidays, resistance is futile,” Terri said.

Other trees are scattered throughout their two-level, 4,200-square-foot home.

“In the lower level we have a 6.5-foot tree that has colored lights on it. That’s the tree we put our presents under. It has all the old ornaments from Terri’s grandmother. They’re all handmade,” Bill said.

“The skirt under that tree was made by my stepmom. It looks like a Christmas village. It’s all cross-stitched,” Terri added.

There’s also a 3-foot tabletop tree in Nick’s bedroom.

“He puts all his ornaments from plays or musicals he has been in that I personalized. He has been in musicals and plays since the fifth grade,” Terri said. “He also won drama and singing awards, and there are ornaments that commemorate that. That tree has colored lights on it, and we put it in front of his window so people can see it from the street.”

An ornament of Willie Wonka is seen on the Christmas tree in the bedroom of Nick Mitchell. This was the first character that Nick played in a school performance, as a fifth grader.
An ornament of Willie Wonka is seen on the Christmas tree in the bedroom of Nick Mitchell. This was the first character that Nick played in a school performance, as a fifth grader.

“We also have a tabletop tree from my mom and dad,” Bill said. It’s 2 feet tall, has white lights, white ornaments, red poinsettias and pinecones on it. We put it in our dining room.”

The dining room table also has a one-foot tall tree decorated with miniature ornaments. That tree sits on a small gold and white skirt that is topped with tiny packages.

In the kitchen there are trees from Bill’s grandmother. They include a vintage ceramic tree she made that lights up, and a grouping of 1-foot-tall glass Christmas trees.

Bill said the holidays are so important to them that they kept them in mind when they built their ranch-style home in 2002.

“We added outlets, switches and timers in the places where we would put our trees or hang garland. There are outlets in the floors for some of the trees, and we put outlets on the fireplace mantels so we could plug in the lights for our garland. We added switches because we wanted to be able to put all the lights on or off with the flip of a switch,” he said.

Terri said they recently added smart switches to outlets outside that they can turn on with their phone.

Once they get their home decorated, they enjoy sharing it with others.

“When we have our Christmas gathering each year we have about 75 people over,” Terri said. “It’s usually a few weeks before Christmas, and we have all the aunts, uncles and cousins. It goes from lunch to 10 at night with guests coming and going and everyone brings a dish to share.”

At that event, she said, one of Bill’s uncles dresses up like Santa and has the children sit on his lap so he can give them cookies and candies made by some of his aunts. At times, one of his aunts dresses up like Mrs. Claus.

Guests mainly gather in their large lower level; a space they finished in 2005. Their lower level was featured on an HGTV segment in 2010 called “Bang for Your Buck.”

Celebrations are also held on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

“Then, we spend time with people who aren’t family. We call them friends who are like family. They share our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It’s our time to include everybody. We make sure no one we know is alone for the holidays,” Terri said.

They recently talked about how they decorate their home for the holidays with the help of their teddy bear dog, Snickers.

Question: Where do you store all your holiday pieces?

Bill: We have two shelving units downstairs in a storage area for the bins of Christmas stuff. It’s about a 10-by-10 area. We have about 30 medium-sized bins and three bins for the garland. The trees also go in that area. I just carry the smaller trees down. I only have to take apart the 9-foot tree and the two 6.5-foot trees.

Terri: We take them apart before we take them down, but then we put them back together (downstairs) so they don’t get mushed while they are being stored.

Q. Are all your trees artificial?

Bill: Yes. Our largest is a Balsam Hill flip tree. It comes in two parts and is a foldable Christmas tree that flips into position in seconds.

Q: Some of your trees have white lights while others have colored lights. Why is that?

Terri: My family tradition is to use white lights, his is to use colored lights, so we use some of each in the house.

Q: How do you use snowmen to accent your home?

Terri: I put them throughout the house. The beauty is that you can keep them up after Christmas so then it doesn’t seem so bare in the house. I only put part of my collection up for Christmas. When we take the Christmas decorations down, I leave them up and add more of them for winter.

A Green Bay Packer, king and fisherman are among the nutcracker figurines collected by Nick Mitchell. The fisherman nutcracker was a present from his great uncle.
A Green Bay Packer, king and fisherman are among the nutcracker figurines collected by Nick Mitchell. The fisherman nutcracker was a present from his great uncle.

Q: Who collects the nutcrackers?

Terri: Nick does. That collection started when he was little. He has 26 of them. He has some traditional ones but also ones that are dressed in different themes. He has one dressed to look like a fireman and one like a policeman. He also has ones dressed for different sports, and a fisherman because he goes fishing with his grandpa and an uncle. A lot of them have meaning for him.

Q: And the Christmas villages?

Terri: I have been collecting them since I was teenager. I get them when we go on vacations. I create little vignettes with them in different areas of the house. I put artificial snow down for all of them. Nick helps me set some of them up. One is a firehouse with firemen, and there’s a hospital. We also have a skating rink that is motorized.

Q: How many music boxes do you have and what kind?

Terri: I collect Hallmark music boxes. My stepmom started that collection. I have at least a dozen of them. They light up, play music and have parts that move. They are all in the living room. I get one every year from my dad and my stepmom.

Q: Any other special pieces?

Bill: Terri has a Rudolf wreath that she hangs in one of our windows. It’s all cloth. Her grandma made it. ... We also have a full set of holiday dishes. We switch all our china out. The set has a snowman theme. We can use them all winter. We also have a whole set of winter silverware. There are little snowmen on them. I bought them for Terri as a gift when we were dating.

Q: Where do you buy your ornaments/accent pieces?

Terri: I buy the Star Trek and Star Wars ornaments online. The others we buy on vacations. When we travel we like to find local craft fairs and buy them there. Then, not only are they one-of-a-kind, but they have a special meaning for us.

Q: How do you decorate the exterior of your home?

Bill: I do the bushes and we put greenery over the door that lights up. We also have a little Christmas tree outside and it has lights, berries and pinecones on it. We also decorate our light post.

Terri: I also put candles in all the windows at the front of the house. I’m from Lancaster, Pa., and it is a tradition there. They say that years ago, the lights welcomed the farmers back into the houses from the fields.

Q: How large is your lot?

Bill: It’s a three-quarter-acre wooded lot on a cul de sac. There is a conservancy in back of it and one along the side of it. We often see deer in the conservancy.

Q: How is your home furnished?

Terri: It’s eclectic. I have some pieces that are modern, but we also have pieces that are antiques from my grandparents. I like to mix them in with the modern pieces.

Q: Do your decorations complement the style of your home?

Terri: Maybe not the Star Trek ones, but the other decorations do.

*****

If you go

The Mitchells purchase some of their artwork at the Monches tour, and some of their friends exhibit at the tour.

What: 39th Annual Monches Artisan Holiday Open House: A free, self-driving tour of about six artists shops, studios, and eateries with holiday music. (Interiors of the homes are not open to public.)

Where: All are within a 10-mile radius of the artist community of Monches, near Holy Hill. Map of locations available on website.

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 3, 4 and 5 at most locations.

Tickets: Free

For more information: Call (262) 853-2731 or see monchesartisans.com.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Christmas decorations galore at Sussex home show love for holidays