See How This Dover Home Nails Christmas Decor

The Small family decorates not one beautiful tree, but four.

Christmas comes but once a year. But Cindy Small thinks about the holiday months before she hangs the first ornament on her first tree.

She and her husband, David, ring in the Yule in exuberant style, with vignettes of carolers, abundant arrangements of fresh fruits and greens, elegantly appointed dining tables and at least four trees.

“My philosophy in decorating is very Victorian,” Cindy says. “Too much is still not enough for me.”

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Launching an organized effort is essential for this busy couple. He is secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. She is coordinator of the Business Resiliency Program at the University of Delaware.

When there is lots of work to be done, it helps to get an early start. An added bonus: Family and friends have more time to delight in the decorations.

“We put up at least one tree the day before Thanksgiving so everyone can sit in the dining room and enjoy it,” Cindy says. “Friday, we go crazy.”

From left: A sculpture of red-winged blackbirds wraps around the family room; the nature tree features owl ornaments along with foxes, pheasants and pine cones 

A natural fit

The Smalls live in a two-story, traditional home near Moores Lake in Dover. They call it Wildswood, in keeping with the natural setting.

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When they bought the house in 2008, the couple liked that there was an open concept conducive to entertaining, as well as lots of room for their two children, Jessica and Trey, now young adults. They also were attracted to a first-floor master suite that would allow them to do most of their living on the ground floor after they became empty nesters.

They were pleased to learn that there are nests outdoors—and these nests are not empty. An active parliament of barred owls makes their home in trees on the property.

Found throughout North America, barred owls have large, rounded heads—no ear tufts—with pale faces and dark rings around their eyes. They are highly vocal birds, giving a loud “hoo, hoo, too-HOO.”

“I hoot to them and they hoot back,” Cindy says.

The owls are the inspiration for what the Smalls call their nature tree, which is decked out in shades of copper and brown in the den. David takes charge of decorating the tree, combining an ever-growing collection of owl ornaments with foxes, pheasants and pine cones.  

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The dining room reflects Cindy Small’s penchant for Victorian decorations

A flight of fancy

Birds are a constant in the Smalls’ design scenario all year-round. A sweeping sculpture that wraps around the family room is an artistic interpretation of red-winged blackbirds in flight. It sprang from the imagination of West Grove, Pa., sculptor Erica Zoe Loustau, who has long been fascinated by the movement of flocks of birds.

David discovered the work at a fundraising event at the Biggs Museum of American Art in Dover. “He loved the birds, so when they came up for auction, I bought them and surprised him,” Cindy says.

David also collects replicas of seabirds from the shores of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia, as well as vintage oyster cans. The hand-made model of a skipjack, a traditional sailboat used to dredge oysters in Chesapeake Bay, takes on special cargo during the holidays.

“We found a miniature Santa and tree, with tiny packages underneath,” Cindy says. 

She has collected Byers’ Choice toys for more than 15 years, amassing an array of Victorian women miniatures. In the dining room, a collection of Williamsburg-inspired figurines dressed in tricorn hats provides a visual serenade. 

Cindy has been collecting since she was 13, starting with a vintage dog ornament she bought at an antiques store while visiting an aunt in California. A vibrant Christmas cactus sprang from a clipping from her mother, who died 20 years ago. “It’s still making flowers,” she says.

Mementos from travels

On the porch there’s a travel tree, decorated with ornaments and mementos that reflect family vacations. They include Cindy’s collection of official White House ornaments. There’s a palm tree from Savannah, Ga., a replica of the chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and a Downton Abbey ornament of an English stately home purchased at Winterthur. 

The tree is crowned with a large butterfly with gold gossamer wings. “I like nontraditional tree toppers,” Cindy says.

This year, they will add a new ornament—a tiny guitar discovered on a vacation in Nashville.

“Everywhere we go, we visit gift shops, looking for things we will enjoy at Christmas,” she says. 

Cindy also shops for ideas. She snapped pictures of a holiday display of owlets and ribbons she admired in a design center in California, then adapted it to decorate the chandelier over the kitchen island. She saves December editions of magazines, a go-to resource for holiday design ideas.

The Smalls begin decorating with items that aren’t perishable, such as figurines, ornaments and pre-lit artificial trees augmented with additional strings of lights. Then they add elements that will be replaced as needed throughout the season, including fresh pineapples and other fruits, as well as pine, holly and winterberry gathered from outdoors.

Cindy also dries flowers from her garden in the pool house to weave into Christmas arrangements. “If you cut the hydrangeas just as they are drying, they will keep that green and pink color,” she says. “A teeny spray of gold paint around the edges will make it sparkle.”

The Smalls’ daughter, Jessica, made a large wreath from horseshoe crabs sprayed with metallic silver paint. She transformed the bodies of duck decoys into owl figurines, with snippets of leather for ears and eyes made from repurposed shotgun shells.

‘Home is a special place’

Their largest tree, decorated with ornaments the family has collected over several generations, stands in the family room. There’s the dog Cindy bought when she was a girl, a vintage Betty Boop ornament, and other pieces discovered at antiques shops and estate sales. The tree is wrapped with ribbons of gold garland, 8 inches wide and 50 feet long.

“Buy as much garland as you think you will need—and then double it,” she says.

Throughout the holidays, the Smalls entertain family and friends at meals, starting with Thanksgiving. On Christmas Eve, they set the table with their collection of square, black-and-white Delaware dishes, each depicting a historic site and the state seal.

“They are very contemporary, and it’s easy to add colors to the black and white,” Cindy says. 

On New Year’s Eve, they set out teal-colored wine glasses, with all-white dishes, accents of silver or gold, and arrangements of white roses. Throughout the year, they enjoy place settings handed down through David’s family.

“Making a welcoming home is everything to me, and we are fortunate in having lots of china from previous generations,” Cindy says. “Home is a special place, and I am always happy here.”


More is more. The Smalls weave additional strings of lights around pre-lit trees to achieve greater sparkle. Get personal. Display collections that reflect your roots and your interests, as in David Small’s collection of oyster cans and seabirds from the Eastern Shore. Indulge in flights of artistic fancy. The soaring sculpture of red-winged black birds in flight was purchased at an auction at the Biggs Museum. Seize the moment. Snap pictures of vignettes that inspire you to create your own interpretation at home. Set a festive table. The Smalls enjoy china handed down through the family, as well as their own collections, for merry meals throughout the holidays.

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