Her house is decorated like the photographs you see in magazines: elegant by what seems beyond the capacity of mere mortals; breathtaking in its thoroughness — she has paintings that she swaps out for Christmas. There are three trees, angels in the china cabinet, an enormous tapestry of Santa hanging in the entryway, a fleet of teddy bears ascending the stairs, which is wrapped in a decorated garland, and a whole army of nutcrackers standing sentinel on the mantle.
She says: “The things I have here are just things. If you take them individually, something will capture something for you. You might see … a pair of skates hanging on the tree and go, ‘Oh gosh, I forgot about the time I used to. … ’”
It’s like walking into another world, all cozy and heartwarming and inviting; a deeply evocative stirring of childhood Christmas memories. Woven into it all is Debbie Toy, with the biggest of smiles and the embodiment of welcomes.
“I’ve had friends go through a divorce or the loss of a child; they’re not happy — but when they come over and they see all the decorations, most of them will say, it’s so magical here. It’s such a happy atmosphere.
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“Then for an hour or two that they’re here, their mood switches. I feel that’s a gift that I can give back.
“People go, ‘Why (decorate)?’ I do it because it brings happiness to other people. ... ”
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Starting in October, Debbie decorates her house with a harvest theme, in pumpkins and leaves, in golds and browns. As it gets closer to Thanksgiving, she adds turkeys and pilgrims. But when Thanksgiving dinner is done, it all gets whisked away.
“Instead of going to Black Friday, we get up about 5:30 a.m. and we start in.”
Debbie’s husband, Jim, does the big stuff — hanging the tapestry and the three-foot wreath and the garland down the stairs. He hefts the big storage totes — there’s more than 40 of them stored in the attic over the garage — into the house by twos and threes. Debbie does the rest, and it might take two or three days.
“Everything has its place, kind of. … ”
It used to be that they would wait until December to decorate. But from December through New Year’s, there’s at least one or two groups every week that have put in special requests to come to Debbie’s house.
“My friends say, ‘Why do you keep doing that?’ I say, ‘That’s why. It’s blessing other people, so that’s what I do.’”
There are friends from bunco and Bible study and her mother’s friends — they all like to visit, and look, and remember.
“I get as much pleasure — now taking it down is a different thing — but when I go to put (the decorations) up, the memories (just flood back).
“I’ll think of my mom’s friend who is 94. I’ll think of when Midge would come and look at my figurine of Jesus, the Christ child, and how she would start talking about her memories. So I get as much pleasure decorating and thinking of — not just my own memories of my family — but of all our friends and their memories.”
‘The greatest happiness’
Debbie’s father was killed in the Korean War when she was 1 year old; her sister and brother were 2 and 3.
“I think Christmas for my mom has always been a time when she could be happy. Because of three young children, she made Christmas full of happiness for us. …
“Christmas was always decorating and happy. When I got married, I’ve just done the same thing. My sister, also.”
Debbie’s mother, Maxine Wright, is 90 years old. She still loves her house decorated, but these years, Debbie and her sister, Suzanne Sherlock, do the decorating for her. They purposefully go when Maxine is out playing bridge.
“And then it’s just hilarious. We know 100 percent we’re going to get a phone call that night. She comes home and says, ‘Well, girls, I just love my house. But I did make a little change.’ … We know she has to make it her way, but we’ve got the mess of it and the majority of it’s up. We love doing that for Mom.”
Debbie also loves the story about Maxine’s church friend, who told her mother they were all praying for her.
“My mom goes, ‘Well, why? I’m just fine.’ (The friend says), ‘No we’re wanting the Lord to keep you healthy so we can come to your house at Christmas.’ Isn’t that cute?…
“We all have gifts. I think that’s how my mom raised us: The greatest happiness for us is when we can see other people happy. …”
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For 33 years, Debbie taught elementary school and served as principal at several schools in the Boise School District.
“If there’s one thing that I wish parents now would focus on is, it’s giving children opportunities for memories, for traditions.
“I’m not saying money. I’m saying, ‘I love Christmas because we get to go out and make a snowman with Dad,’ or, ‘I love Christmas because we get to go down to the pond and ice fish.’ …
“I love tradition. And I love that, across the economic board, we all can create very healthy, good memories to hold on to. And it doesn’t have to cost anything. It’s just time. Your time.”
That’s part of why Debbie decorates.
“Because I hope the 60 people who might come through my home — different friends through this season — will go home and make a difference in their lives. And then that’s going to make a difference in the next one. It’s the ripple effect, so I guess I’m paying back for what my mom gave me: great memories.”
The big tree in Debbie and Jim’s living room is the “traditional” tree. It’s the one full of ornaments that they have bought over their 20 years of marriage to remind them of the kids, trips, inside jokes — their memories.
“It has a ton of ornaments on it, but it (used to have) a bazillion ornaments on it. As each one of our children gets married, we give each one of them a box of ornaments to start their own tree.”
When the last of their kids married, Debbie thought maybe she could taper back on the decorating. Or maybe not; now there are the grandkids.
“Their parents say, ‘We don’t bother to put out a lot because we’re not home; we just get on the plane and come to your house.’ I thought, ‘I’ll just keeping doing that.’”
Debbie’s decorations and her groups are not just about partying. There’s a deeper significance.
“I really feel the meaning of Christmas is showing love. Not telling people they should love more, (but) trying to do what I might be telling people.
“So Christmas is happiness, being thankful for what Christ did for us. And bringing joy to other people's lives.”
Debbie’s gift is hospitality. But, she points out, it’s not exclusive to her.
“Can each of us take a look at our home and make our home want to bring people in? How do we do that? That’s what’s fun about life; we’re all going to do it in a different way.
“My neighbor across the street, she makes these gorgeous quilts. I love to go over there and look at all her quilts — so you don’t want everyone to be the same.
“Whatever God’s given to you, what have you done with it? How have you invested what’s been given to you?”
Late on the day after Thanksgiving, Debbie sank into the sofa with a sigh. The angel tree in the front window sparkled; a tree with tea party theme — from her mother — twinkled in the dining room.
“I love it. I absolutely love it. I love looking at all the trees, because they all have memories. Every year, I have new friends. I now play bunco; they are saying, ‘Christmas, we’re coming to your house.’
“And so, I’ll have more memories.”
The nutcrackers glow from the fireplace fire. A reindeer peeks in the window from the back deck.
“Giving. Absolutely that’s the word I’d use. I’m giving some happy memories to whoever comes to my home. …
“I love to make people happy, that’s just a joy for me. At Christmas, I feel so rich — because how many people can make 60 people feel happy every time they walk into your house? It’s just fun.
“I get my bucket refilled — and then I can go back out and pour out more for someone else.”
She thinks about the people who will come visit in the next several weeks.
“People that come here, that’s when the gift of kindness, the gift of love, the gift of laughter — all of those things are exchanged. …
“My house provides the atmosphere for the people who will make it come alive. Otherwise, it’s just stuff, it’s just things. But collectively, put together, it’s magic.”
Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.