Christmas decor in one North English home is a reflection of family and memories, but homeowner Jen Steckly wouldn’t be offended if someone saw it as “kitschy, plastic, bright, shiny and sometimes downright tacky Christmas goodness.” She described it that way to people taking the English River Christmas Tour of Homes on Dec. 1.
At least 100 Santas of all varieties — stuffed, glowing and sometimes just their heads — join flocked reindeer that appear frozen as if startled, a Christmas wall tree and even a cardboard fireplace that emits a warm glow. Everywhere one looks there are reminders of yuletides past: wire brush and aluminum-colored trees, Shiny Brite ornaments, ceramic trees and that pink bathtub. You see, Christmas has a decidedly midcentury vibe in the Steckly home.
Tour organizer Carolyn Elwood knew of Steckly’s midcentury pieces and encouraged her to participate because the decor was “different from most people,” Steckly said. The collection, which fills 40 various-sized totes, spans the home’s main level of two bedrooms, two bathrooms, living and dining rooms and sunroom.
Walking up to the home, one can see Steckly didn’t neglect to decorate outside. Large multicolor bulbs line the roofline, candles and eight blow molds, including a 5-foot Santa like one her mother had, greet visitors. Framed inside the house is a photograph of Steckly’s Grandpa Clinton shoveling snow with the blow mold in the background.
Most people have reacted by exclaiming, “We had this growing up!”
“I love that reaction,” said Steckly, 42, who lives in the home with husband, Mike, 47, and daughter Isabel, a senior in high school. “Their face lights up. That’s exactly what I want to see.”
Midcentury design reminds Steckly of her childhood, she said, as does the latch-hook Big Bird stocking her mother, Gail, made in the 1980s. Steckly loves the midcentury packaging and its graphics, bright colors and kitschy look. Original boxes of ornaments sit under several trees.
She has been collecting ornaments from that time period for several years. Her collecting really took off after she and four friends started an antiques shop called Whatever Floats Your Goat in North English.
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Steckly’s thoughts are never far from Christmas when she’s in an antique or thrift store. This year she added a 3-foot stuffed Santa. Another acquisition is her grandma’s electric fireplace from the 1970s, which she brought up from the basement for Christmas. With a faux brick surround and hearth, the fireplace had a ceramic tree on top and was lined with the grandkids’ stockings when Steckly was younger. It now holds her family’s stockings.
People in town also have given her plenty of holiday items that might not go with their homes. Steckly tags the item with its owner’s name. The tour became more personal for people who saw their former possessions displayed lovingly in Steckly’s home.
What’s more — Steckly knows and can share the history of ornament production around World War II. The history is why the unsilvered ornaments are her favorite. Blockades in Europe prevented exports, including ornaments from Czechoslovakia, Germany and Japan, from reaching the United States.
The Corning Glass Co. then began making glass ball ornaments, which were decorated and sold by others, including Shiny Brite. However, the silver nitrate solution used in production was deemed non-essential during wartime. By 1942, the silver lining was gone, and clear, painted glass balls were made until 1945.
Ornaments of that era also lost their metal cap to the war effort and replaced with caps made of cardboard or paper. Standard ornament production resumed in 1946.
The home was completed in 1974 for Steckly’s grandma, Theresa O’Rourke, who was the 10th of 14 children. For 40 years, O’Rourke’s home was the gathering spot for every family dinner, which could get crowded, Steckly said. She is planning to host Christmas next year. “This year, there’s not enough room for everyone and decor,” she said jokingly.
Steckly and her siblings had a close relationship with their grandma because they grew up in North English and lived across the street. They could easily pop into their grandma’s house and had weekly play days with her. Her sister Jayme bought their parents’ house.
O’Rourke, who died in November 2015, wanted her home to stay in the family and told Steckly it would be her house one day. That day came in June after the Stecklys completed some interior renovation. Changes included opening up the galley kitchen and removing carpet, including from the bathroom.
What would her grandma think of the changes? “She would probably shake her head and giggle,” she said. “I don’t know if she would approve of everything.”
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Remaining in the home are her grandma’s bedroom set and an RCA Victor console stereo, which was the last piece of furniture grandfather Leo bought for his wife before his passing. The dining room’s crystal chandelier was relocated to the master bedroom.
Additions to the home include the master bedroom’s 1950s pink bathtub, which is in honor of O’Rourke, and a countertop of pink laminate covered in the era’s iconic boomerangs.
“Grandma always had pink everything in the bedroom,” Steckly said. The toilet is also pink. Another constant with her grandma was going shopping on Black Friday. She would travel with relatives to Cedar Rapids and spend the day shopping — not for the deals but for the tradition.
Starting at 9 a.m., Steckly said they went to Toys “R” Us and stopped for lunch, dinner and a snack on their outing. Her grandma continued these trips until the year before she died at 94.
Steckly has established traditions with her family, including baking cookies. She watches her favorite holiday movie, “White Christmas,” while decorating the main Christmas tree. Hiding the Elf on the Shelf began during her daughter’s childhood.
O’Rourke loved Christmas, Steckly said, and she bought gifts for everyone. Wrapping presents was no small job with a large family. Steckly, her sister and mother would come over and set up card tables to wrap gifts. O’Rourke set a high standard for wrapping and wanted each gift to be finished with ribbon and a bow, Steckly said. When she became unable to wrap herself, she supervised her family’s efforts.
The meticulous work was undone quickly when family members opened a gift after Christmas Eve Mass, a tradition Steckly continues. Steckly, who spent four weekends decorating, will take time to savor the seasonal decor and safeguard the glass ornaments. There can be “a lot of mishaps — especially with a hardwood floor,” Steckly said.
Her collection will remain out until the middle of January. No doubt Steckly’s grandma would be pleased her love of Christmas continues. While the decor may go unseen for most of the year, Steckly can see Christmas memories anytime at home.