Growing up in rural West Virginia, Joyce Bell and her family always had a live tree cut from the forest. The holidays were a glorious time, filled with a child’s wonder.
“I believed in Santa until I was 13 years old,” she says.
Bell still approaches the holidays with the joy and excitement of her girlhood years. Except now she lives in a condo in Wilmington. And that live forest greenery? “I use silk greens,” she says. “It’s too much mess to go with real greens.”
She starts decorating immediately after Thanksgiving. She has amassed several closets filled with ornaments and seasonal accoutrements over the years, but she approaches each Yuletide from a new perspective.
“I pull all the stuff out of the closets and then I evaluate it,” she says. “I never do anything the same way twice.”
For her official kickoff of the holiday season, she hosts a large-scale dinner party for as many as 150 guests. The event starts at 3 p.m. and ends around midnight “when my grandchildren ask me to tuck them into bed.”
The menu typically includes three turkeys “with my mother’s sage stuffing,” ham, pork shoulder, beef brisket, salmon, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans with basil, corn, sweet potatoes seasoned with cinnamon and brown sugar, exotic mushrooms and cranberry sauce.
Bell’s granddaughters, Elsa and Kara Bell Young, help decorate during the holidays.// Photo by Joe Del Tufo
“My guests all bring either a dessert or an appetizer to share,” she says.
For that event, the dining room table is set with 10 electric warming trays. After the party, her best table settings come out. She doesn’t put them away until after the new year. “I like to set a nice table,” she says. “Why have something if you don’t use it?”
She starts with a white lace tablecloth and sets a red tartan placemat at each seat and a red runner down the center of the table. “I like red—and lots of it,” she says.
Then she layers ivory Lenox gold-rimmed dishes in the Eternal pattern on top of large gold chargers. She adds sparkling Waterford wine glasses and champagne flutes edged with a wide red band. Antique silver flatware provides additional shimmer.
Bell’s holiday table setting.// photo by Joe Del Tufo
For the centerpiece, Bell combines long-leaf pine, winterberry, apples and tall, tapered red candles. And because you never know when friends will drop in, she sets a second smaller table for four on an enclosed balcony with views of the Brandywine and Wilmington’s city lights.
As accomplished hostess Joyce Bell can attest, one of the greatest joys of the winter holidays is festive foods. Don’t think of gourmet goodies as simply treats for the tummy. Seasonal foods also are a feast for the eyes.
Here are delicious ideas for decorating with incredible edibles:
Throughout her home are elaborate reminders of the season: illuminated angel figurines adorned with feathers, garlands with red tartan bows and votive candles in long-stemmed cranberry glass holders. A large wreath of pine, cones, beads and ribbons is mounted on a mirror in the living room.
On the bar, figurines of tipsy reindeer—”with their skinny legs up in the air,” she notes—add a touch of whimsy. In the den, there’s a collection of snowmen. Two large nutcrackers in red and gold uniforms and tall gold hats stand sentry in the foyer on either side of a curio cabinet. “They are my protection,” she says.
Wide-scale decorating requires many hands. Bell’s granddaughters, Elsa and Kara Bell Young, tidy up and help to assemble decorations.
illuminated angel figurines adorned with feathers are reminders of the season.// Photo by Joe Del Tufo
Because the living room in her condo is expansive, she puts up two midsize trees, each 4 1/2 feet tall. One is made from pine cones and was a seasonal discount she couldn’t resist.
“I found it at an after-Christmas sale at Marshalls more than 10 years ago,” she says. “Dec. 26 is the best day to shop for decorations.”
The other tree is an artful artificial Tannenbaum, bedecked with angels and sentimental ornaments, many of them crafted by Bell’s adult daughters, Kelly and Mandy, when they were little girls. A toy train, a gift from a friend, runs on a circular track beneath.
“I have a lot of sentimental things that I truly treasure,” she says. “I only retire something when it gets broken or squished.”
Like her greens, Bell gravitates toward low-maintenance poinsettias, always in her trademark red. Each year, she intersperses them with live plants. “I can’t resist a nice, full, healthy-looking plant,” she says.
Brightly wrapped packages become part of the decor. She also slips presents into leather bags that recipients can use year-round, “like a gift inside a gift.”
Twinkling lights on trees add to the spirited ambiance. Bell also is fond of candles, which provide a soft glow.
“I light lots and lots of candles,” she says. “At Christmas, you do more of everything.”
BELL GRAVITATES TOWARDS LOW-MAINTENANCE POINSETTIAS, ALWAYS IN HER TRADEMARK RED.// Photo by Joe Del Tufo
While Bell has fun putting up decorations, putting them away is a chore. To minimize the heavy lifting, she has devised a system that only takes two hours. She puts away her trees with the ornaments still on them, ready for next year.
She collects everything else and moves it into her rec room, where she groups items. Small things go in bags. Anything that is fragile goes in a box on a shelf.
“Arranging things takes thought,” she says. “Taking them down does not.”
More is more. For the holidays, pull out all the stops. Deck the halls with boughs of holly—and then add glistening ornaments. Maximize the impact of mirrors by decorating them with wreaths.
Tell a story. Set a dish of cookies and a mug of cocoa out for Santa. Place a bowl of unshelled walnuts next to the giant nutcracker soldier. Bring out photos of family and friends attired in their holiday finery.
Set a sumptuous table. Now is the time to dress the table in fine linens. Polish silver and crystal to ensure sparkle. Get out your holiday china.
Decorate with natural elements that are reminiscent of winter. Add pine cones to a centerpiece. Tuck sprigs of pine—real or artificial—into the frames of paintings and mirrors.
Add a touch of whimsy. Joyce Bell decorates busts and statues with jaunty Santa caps.