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Cedar Rapids woman may be getting older but decorating for Christmas remains important

Retired teacher Mae Howe of Cedar Rapids is seen reflected in a mirror as she looks over some of her Christmas decoratio
Retired teacher Mae Howe of Cedar Rapids is seen reflected in a mirror as she looks over some of her Christmas decorations on a display in the entryway to her home in Cedar Rapids on Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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No matter the time of year, you’ll know what season it is as soon as Mae Howe’s Northeast Cedar Rapids home comes into view. From the condo’s front porch rooms upstairs and down, Howes decorates for each season and holiday.

Redecorating monthly became second nature during her years as a teacher at Cleveland Elementary School in Cedar Rapids. Newlywed with her first house, Howes carried those decorating ideas to her home. Although she retired 22 years ago as an English as a Second Language/ESL teacher, she maintains those traditions.

“I just started buying things. Before I knew it, I had quite a bit,” Howes said. “I just have to keep changing a bit with the times.”

Howes goes all-out for Christmas, although she confessed that Halloween and fall are her favorite holiday and season. Each Christmas, her home’s décor looks a little bit different than previous years. Her holiday displays feature items from her childhood, recent purchases, and one-of-a-kind gifts from friends and family. Her favorites include Santas, trees, and cats – sometimes all three displayed together.

Howes has hosted Christmas for her family for more than 50 years. They have come to expect to see their favorites each Christmas. Howes loves that the time she spends decorating brings joy to her children, grandchildren, and other family and friends. “Memories are what it’s all about,” Howes said.

Mix new and old

Howes has a knack for mixing items that create cheerful holiday displays throughout her home. Her holiday keepsakes are a combination of family keepsakes, traditional décor, and new, more modern pieces.

Just inside of the front door, a glittering display of Christmas trees is artfully arranged on a sideboard to reflect light off a large mirror. There are old-fashioned silver trees of mercury glass, modern trees in clear glass, and several trees covered in white crystals to look like freshly fallen snow. A few of the latter once belonged to a dear friend; when she died, her husband gifted the small trees to Howes.

The trees display is typical of the way Howes decorates, mixing older treasures with newer items, always making a place for gifts from friends and family. Near the kitchen, two stuffed Santas sit on a chair with a pillow grandson Chris brought from Japan last year. She surrounds the ceramic tree her mother made more than 50 years ago with cat ornaments purchased in recent years.

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“I keep adding,” she said, laughing. “My kids would probably say I can’t stop.”

Collect what you like

One of the first Christmas decorations she collected was a tiny wooden village, purchased at a craft show in Robins.

“I have things from Armstrong’s. I loved Armstrong’s,” Howes said, referencing the downtown Cedar Rapids department store that closed in 1991. She picks up holiday decorations in suburban Chicago, where her daughter and family live. Visiting her son’s Wisconsin resort, she makes purchases in the gift shop. Locally, she shops in the Amanas and at local home décor and department stores. She knows she can always find a place for something new.

“If I just happen to like an ornament, I get it,” Howes said.

Inspired by her love of pet cats, including her current cat, Spunky, Howes began collecting paintings, sculptures, and holiday décor with cats.

“Most of the Santas I get now have cats on them,” Howes said. “Everybody seems to get me cat things.”

Ask for help

Just as her decorations change over the years, so has Howes’ process for putting displays together. For more than 30 years, her long-time partner, Duane Barnhart, took charge of outdoor lighting and decorating while Howes’ busied herself indoors. After Barnhart died n August 2016, Howes recruited her son-in-law, Ted Downes, to tackle the outdoor décor.

Ted and his wife, Laurie, Howes’ daughter, traveled from suburban Chicago to help Howes get a start on Christmas decorating.

“They help me bring the stuff up from the basement. I do all the decorating, but they help me get it where it belongs.” Howes said. “Dave helps me put things away, too.”

This year, Howes is missing her gift wrap partner, Kari, Barnhart’s granddaughter, who moved out of state for college this fall. As a backup plan, Howes will shop at department stores that offer free gift-wrapping services.

Decorating the mantel on the fireplace became the responsibility of grandson Chris Downes when he was in middle school. Now that Downes lives and teaches abroad, it’s up to Howes to place each Santa where it had been the previous year.

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“Now Chris can’t wait to get back from Japan to see everything,” Howes said.

Take pictures of displays

Wanting to keep this display essentially the same from year to year led to one of the best decorating tips Howes has: take pictures of displays before you take them down. The photos also allow Howes to imagine where she’ll place a new item among her regular displays.

“From year to year, I have a guideline,” Howes said.

Christmas cheer in every room

A Santa that dresses up granddaughter Mary’s guest room is moved to the dining room during holiday dinners: he matches Howes’ Christmas dishes. In another guest room, garland and red, white, and blue Santas live year-round on top of cupboards in the room that was once Barnhart’s office.

Even the bathrooms get a touch of Christmas with holiday-inspired soap dispensers and towels, plus ornaments, and other decorations that need to find a home for the holidays. Somehow, Howes pulls it off without any of the rooms feeling cluttered or overwhelmed by decorations.

Are you running out of wall and horizontal space? Take a cue from Howes’ Christmas displays and rest garland and small decorations on top of door jambs.

Remember to tell the stories

When she was growing up in DeWitt, Iowa, her family didn’t decorate much other than a tree. Yet some of Howes’ most precious holiday decorations were handed down from her mother.

A delicate, beaded angel ornament, part of an ornament display in Howes’ basement family room, was created by her mother when beaded crafts were popular. In 1965, her mother made the ubiquitous ceramic Christmas tree now featured in the corner of Howes’ dining room.

The ceramic tree is beginning to show its age; the three sections are more difficult to match up. “As the years go on, you can see how the light comes through it more,” Howes said.

Other holiday decorations are beginning to show wear. A red-headed angel dressed in gold, Howes’ first ornament, is on display again this year even though she noticed the angel had a nick in her skirt.

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