Celebrated artist and illustrator Mary Engelbreit shares a Christmas craft project and takes us on a holiday tour of her home.
Mary Engelbreit is recognized throughout the world for her warm, witty and nostalgic illustration style. Signing her art simply ME, she explains, “it’s pretty much all me in those drawings.” The unmatched demand for her work has grown with a range of licensed products that stretches from calendars, to best-selling children’s books, millions of greeting cards, and thousands of gifts, crafts and home accents. Both an artist and entrepreneur, Mary embodies the nickname her family gave her as a child “because I was so bossy.” She’s the undisputed “Queen of Everything”.
Your color scheme is striking but unusual, especially for the holidays. Tell us about it.
Our house is done in shades of yellow and orange, and we love how bright it looks. But it definitely doesn’t go with Christmas red and green.
I want my decorations to look like part of the room, so I opt for gold, silver and orange in the living room, dining room and kitchen. It’s not traditional. But I think the house looks happy, and wintry and Christmasy enough to make people feel it’s a special time and place.
How do childhood memories influence your Christmas art and decor?
My mother always did a bang-up job at Christmas, with a lot of decorations. I loved helping her—making ornaments, paper chains and place cards for the dinner table. It was a charmed, wonderful time at our house, and I hope I’ve made some great memories for my kids as well. Although our daughter could not care less about decorating, she always assures me after it’s all done, “Hey, it really looks pretty.”
What’s at the top of your holiday to-do list?
My goal is to not make Christmas a chore, to make it a fun, magical time of year, and to have a good time decorating and entertaining. If it becomes a race or a competition, I’m not interested. I want it to be enjoyable, and just as easy as I can make it.
Have you ever been tempted to have another decorator “do” your house for Christmas?
I’ve never even considered it. I really love doing it—and you make time for what you love. Usually I get in the mood the day after Thanksgiving and start hauling things up from the basement—and telling myself I won’t get everything out.
Most of my Christmas decorating gets done at night, after work. It takes me about four days to finish, depending on how carried away I get.
You keep many of your everyday items out during the holidays. Why is that?
Well, I don’t like the idea of moving everything out to bring seasonal things in! I don’t have the patience, and I want the whole house to participate in Christmas. So I just add holiday touches. For instance, my bell jars are out all year, filled with family pictures or shells. Now they’re showcasing angels sitting on batting clouds. I made paper Santa hats to put on the portrait of my sons when they were little—and the marble and stone busts above the fireplace wear glittery wreaths on their heads.
We use our everyday plates, glasses and napkins on our dinner table and scatter festive accents around them. Sometimes I fill one of my glass cake plates with Christmas balls in complementary colors—then I hang mini ornaments around the rim. Instant centerpiece!
You’re known to be a collector. How do you work collections into your holiday decor?
I’ve become an accidental collector over the years. You wouldn’t know it by the boxes in our basement, but I have edited down what my family calls my Christmas stuff from gajillions of reindeer, Santas and snowmen to just my favorites. I have a huge collection of garlands. Some were handed down from my grandmother, and a lot I buy. I try to stop—but I love them! I hang them on mantels, from chandeliers, around lampshades and along the banister. They make the room look so partylike.
I get bored looking at the same decorations every year, so I change things up—putting things in different places. Last year I noticed my little Christmas houses fit perfectly on our staircase, along the edge of the steps. They look so nice there that we keep putting them back every time our two cats knock them off.
Do you put up a traditional Christmas tree?
Our main tree, in the den, is where we hang our old family-favorite ornaments. We have a silver tinsel tree in our bedroom where we display the ornaments the kids have made.
If I could get away with it, I’d put up little trees everywhere—the small crepe paper, bottlebrush and feather trees. They fit so well on tables. I turn my white McCoy pottery and candleholders into mini tree stands so I can display them at different heights.
Do you hand-make any holiday decorations?
A group of friends and I like to get together for craft nights, and I usually plan one at my house before Christmas. Last year we made leaf wreaths out of Styrofoam forms and decorative paper. I put mine over the kitchen fireplace.
I also made the banner hanging beside the staircase from one of my drawings, The Christmas Queen. I stapled it to a long wooden dowel I had glittered, and then attached dangling Christmas wind chimes on either end. I clean a lot of glitter and glue off my art table this time of year.
What’s Christmas Day like at your house?
Christmas Eve is the big day for us. My two sisters and I take turns hosting our family dinner. People come over to drop off gifts and we visit. It’s so exciting!
On Christmas Day we try to persuade our daughter to let us get at least some sleep before we go down to open presents. Then we just hang out at home and relax. Later, in a very low-key way, I start cleaning up and preparing for the most difficult part of the entire holiday season—coercing family members to carry all the decorations down to the basement for me. On to Valentine’s Day!
Bring a bit of Mary’s holiday spirit into your own home. As a special gift, she’s designed some heavenly paper angel ornaments for you to hang on your tree or on presents.
Interview by Sharon Selz; photos by Barbara Elliott Martin; portrait by Greg Rannells