'Twas the month before Christmas, when all through the house, Amy Clifton was decorating sans kids or spouse. The garlands were draped o'er the door with great zeal, in hopes of delight at the big Christmas reveal. The children were banished, as was spouse Steve, while Amy and her assistant toiled like worker bees. Over the course of a weekend, the house was transformed, and for the rest of the month, guests swooned and swarmed.
It all started in December 1994 with a purple octopus. Amy and Steve Clifton were dating at the time, and they visited Regency Square Mall together to shop for each other’s Christmas gifts. As they were driving home, Steve told Amy he had seen something he had wanted to buy for himself. “Oh, that purple octopus at Schwarzschild’s?” she asked. “I already bought it.”
Thus began their collection of Christmas ornaments that today numbers in the thousands, requires its own climate-controlled storage room and consumes an entire weekend of Amy’s life each holiday season.
Today, Olivia the octopus occupies a prominent place on the Cliftons’ Christmas tree — one of five trees in their West End home, each carefully decorated with its own theme. There’s the silver tree in the formal living room, decorated with sterling ornaments that were gifts to Amy from her mother and also gifts to the Cliftons’ three children from Steve’s mom. The kids’ tree is festooned with Hallmark ornaments that Steve’s aunts gave him when he was a child, and that Santa continues to deliver to the Clifton kids each year. The boughs of another tree are dripping with fragile blown-glass ornaments by Christopher Radko. Another 300 large Santa and snowman ornaments by Radko decorate garlands that line the arched openings to the home’s center hall.
“When I unpack an ornament, it’s like, ‘Hey, old friend, you need a good place,’” Amy says. “Each ornament brings back memories of the person who gave it to me.”
“Everything has a meaning,” Steve adds. “There are very few things we bought just to buy.”
Steve grew up in a home where Christmas decorations were a big deal, with his mother starting collections of nativity scenes, Dickens’ Village houses and Byers’ Choice caroler figures for him. When he married Amy, his mother passed down these collections to the couple to decorate their new home. Amy celebrated Christmas more simply as a child, she recalls, with a Hummel figurine nativity set and a standard Christmas tree.
Once she met Steve, with his collections and enthusiasm for the holiday, she got hooked on Christmas decorating. “I found it exciting,” she says. “It reminded me of playing with dollhouses with my sister growing up.”
“Amy is from Texas,” Steve adds. “There is no such thing as ‘too much.’”
The couple began to acquire their own collections of decorations and ornaments. And as each of their three children were born, they started collections for them as well. From holiday themed Limoges boxes to Waterford crystal ornaments, from nutcrackers to snow globes, nothing is off-limits. During every vacation, the family looks for a nativity set to bring home as a souvenir.
When the Cliftons gutted and remodeled their house in 2009, they did so with their collections in mind. They added an abundance of built-in shelves to house their Christmas displays and carefully situated electrical outlets so they could easily illuminate trees and garlands. They also added an extra bedroom upstairs, repurposing an old bedroom as an off-season Christmas storage area. “We wanted it to be climate-controlled so we could preserve everything for our kids,” Amy says. “The thought of Olivia [the octopus] hanging on my granddaughter’s Christmas tree someday makes me happy.”
Amy dedicates the weekend after Thanksgiving to decorating. On Thanksgiving afternoon, the whole family pitches in to bring down the bins from the upstairs storage room. Early Friday morning, Steve, the kids and the dog take off for a weekend at Wintergreen, while Amy puts in three 18-hour days decorating. She keeps a detailed before-and-after photo album with ela-borate diagrams to document where all of the decorations go, and where everyday items need to be returned after the holidays. Every ornament is wrapped carefully in tissue paper. Extension cords are kept in Ziploc bags labeled with where they are to be plugged in. This level of hyper-organization is crucial to get the job done. “It takes about four hours to put the ornaments on the garlands and another four hours to decorate the Radko tree,” Amy says. “It is very overwhelming when I start. By Sunday, I need a fresh perspective. I need Steve and the kids to come in and see it and to see their enthusiasm to reassure me.”
Janice Hall Nuckols of Ta-Da! Studio helps Amy, designing and installing the wreaths, front door and interior garlands and all the outdoor decorations. Despite the nonstop frenzy, “they are my three most favorite days of the whole year,” Amy says. “I have a big Christmas playlist, and I play it loud while we work.”
By the time Steve and the kids return home Sunday night, the house has been transformed. “It is really .an amazing sight when you walk in the front door,” he says. “When you drive down the street at night with all the white lights, it looks like a department store.”
Though the Cliftons spend a good part of the next month entertaining everyone from friends and neighbors to Amy’s sorority alumni club and a group from an assisted-living facility, she
insists she does it all for her family.
“If I had nobody in my house for all of December except for my family, I would still do it,” she says. “I do it for me and Steve and the kids. Hopefully, someday they will be happy to have it all in their own houses.”