Every December, Debbie and Jim Toy’s East Boise home turns into a holly jolly North Pole of family memories.
“We all have a gift, and it’s our job to use it in the way the Lord wants us to, and mine is hosting and decorating and having people over,” Debbie said. “I just love to do that.”
“Decorating” might be understating it a bit.
There’s a Family Tree in the family room, a Tea Party Tree in the dining room, an Angel Tree on Grandma’s table in the front window, there are Santas on the credenza, nutcrackers on the mantel, snowmen in the library and almost two dozen teddy bears lined up the staircase. Every shelf and piece of furniture says Christmas. And there is probably the smell of hot chocolate and cookies coming from the kitchen.
“I think I have about 30 containers, and if you count the boxes, I probably have about 45 bags and boxes and containers altogether up in the attic,” Debbie said.
There are what seems like half a zillion items in those boxes, collected over decades.
“We don’t need any more,” said her husband, Jim.
“We can always use one more. … ” Debbie was quick to reply. “He is a sport. He rolls his eyes, but he’s very good. He helps me.”
It’s like a live storybook, because everybody’s sharing — because something jarred their memory.
With that many boxes, and with the three trees — two 5-footers and one 4-footer — this is no after-dinner task. The turkeys and pilgrims head to their boxes and out come the reindeer and angels.
“It takes a day to take down the Thanksgiving (and harvest decorations) and put the trees out and decorate the trees,” she said. “And then it takes me another day and a half; so probably three days.”
When you take a closer look at the three differently themed trees, you start to see where all this Christmas spirit comes from and how it shapes the season in this warm, inviting home.
Take the Tea Party Tree, for example. This originally belonged to Debbie’s mother, now 91 years old, who passed it on to her daughter.
“She loves to have teas,” Debbie said. “She had collected different teapots and tea cups and little figurines all dressed up in their party dresses and stuff like that. So that tree is a memory of my mom.”
Mom lives an active, independent life in another part of town, but she still likes to drop by and admire the special tree. While Mom doesn’t do as much decorating as she once did, Debbie and her sister will go over to Mom’s and decorate her place and then dress and play the role of maids when their mother hosts her own Christmas tea party, much to the delight of the guests.
“They love it,” Debbie said.
The more formal Angel Tree sits proudly in the front room window and reflects Debbie’s faith, exemplifying the reason for the season, as well as memories of loved ones.
But the Family Tree is really the heart of the home.
“The Family Room Tree is a collection of ornaments that we’ve built up as a family, or people have given us a special ornament to remember something in their lives,” she said. “Every ornament has some special memory attached to it. If you point to something on the tree, I could probably tell you.”
The tree is filled with dozens of special family memories, some in plain sight, while others are tucked into cozy, happy, little spaces between the branches. And those childhood, homemade ornaments never lose their spot amongst the other trimmings.
“It’s truly a magical tree,” she said. “Each person brings their own personality to the tree. Each one of us comes with our own history.”
And there are always new personalized additions to it. Their three grandchildren love to “find themselves each year.”
Even visitors are delighted by the ornaments and decorations.
“I’ve not found anyone who has not found something on the tree that has brought back a memory,” Debbie said. “It’s like a live storybook, because everybody’s sharing.”
Passing along tradition
Debbie and Jim have been married 21 years now and have four grown, married kids between them. And because Christmas also means family to them, Debbie and Jim’s collections have been refined over the years and many items have been passed along.
Take those teddy bears lined up the side of the stairway. Debbie spent 33 years as an educator in the Boise School District. A former principal of Trail Wind Elementary School in East Boise, she was honored as Idaho’s national Distinguished Principal of 1999. Debbie started collecting teddy bears as a teacher, and you can imagine how that would easily lead to many more teddy bears. At one time, there were enough teddy bears to line both sides of the staircase.
But when her son and daughter were grown and were ready to start their own families and Christmas memories, Debbie passed along about 20 teddy bears to each of them. Debbie has also given away teddy bears and more to other close friends and children over the years. Giving plays an important role in her spirit of Christmas.
“We all need the opportunity to experience giving and expect nothing in return. It makes you a rich person,” Debbie said. “I love people. And I think that’s what gave me my success as a principal. It wasn’t about me.”
As a principal, it was making her staff feel special, much as when she was a teacher when it was important to make the children feel special. “And when I can do that, when you give and do it with no intention of getting back, you end up very blessed.”
That “passing along” of Christmas doesn’t begin and end with teddy bears either. When Jim’s son and daughter-in-law, Jay and Angie, began their own journey as a new family, they were rewarded with a box of traditions and memories — something they have done for each of their children.
“We compiled probably 40 ornaments and gave it to them,” Debbie said. “And it didn’t even make a dent. And it was just priceless, because Angie said, as Jay hung each of them, he would tell a story or try to remember something. And I thought, as his stepmom, did I make a difference? They had so much fun. I thought that was such a cool thing.
“Even if it’s baking cookies or stringing popcorn, tedious little things you can do with your children, when they’re away, those are the things they’ll remember. It’s priceless. As parents and grandparents, that’s our reward. That’s our payday.”
The true spirit of Christmas
People love to come by the Toy house during the season, and Debbie loves to host. The home just has a warm, pleasant feel that wraps around you like a kid’s snugly Christmas blanket. And it’s not a home or feeling that one easily forgets.
“One of my past principals I haven’t seen or heard from in 20 years called up and asked if he could bring his wife and come visit,” Debbie said. “And I thought, ‘Why do we do the things we do?’ Somebody said, ‘Oh my gosh, Debbie, you’re 67, why do you still decorate like that?’ And I said, ‘You know, it just brings so much happiness — to see people come and relax and be in an environment where they feel comfortable.’
“It seems like everything in life, I have to do something for someone else for a reason, and I just think the whole meaning of Christmas is to remember that it’s a time to give unconditionally and not expect something back in return,” she said. “And, of course, my faith in the Lord. It’s just a time to try to bring happiness into other people’s lives.
“There are a lot of people that don’t have a home this big or can’t decorate that much, and I don’t think it’s the quantity of what we do but the quality of the time that we take to do it that really counts. They know this wasn’t an easy task to decorate, yet I do it, and they come and enjoy it. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
Debbie also knows that this is the kind of gift anyone can give.
“Make a point to find someone who is having a hard time during the holiday season,” she said. “They will say, ‘Thank you for giving me this evening to let down,’ to forget the pain they are having. What better thing can you do for someone than to give them peace?”
Friends start calling in October to remind the Toys to invite them over. It’s a lovely holiday home. But there can’t possibly be room for one more thing.
“I already found something new! Do you want to see it?” she asked, jumping up to go find and show off her newest memory.
Celebrating people, not things, is what’s important, and all of us can do that.
Create special family memories with some holiday tips from Debbie Toy
Debbie and Jim Toy’s home feels like it has been dipped in a barrel of Christmas love every holiday season, and her many visitors leave with a feeling of warmth and goodness, whether they are family members or new acquaintances.
But the real secret to that is not in the collections of angels, Santas or nutcrackers. The secret is that nearly every item, every decoration has a story or a memory or a special meaning.
Here are some inspirational ideas from Debbie Toy to try in your own family:
▪ Each year, purchase or make an ornament that reflects a special trip, event or activity in your life. For instance, bring home some pine cones from your camping trip during the year, then spray paint them and place them in a bowl or string them together for a garland. Or take an old favorite shirt or blanket and cut it into pieces to cover a Christmas ball. You could also cut letter shapes for the initials of family members
▪ Each year, collect an ornament that reflects something special about each of your children for the family tree. And then when they leave home, you can give them their special ornaments to help decorate their first Christmas tree.
▪ At family get-togethers, have each person create and cut out a paper snowflake. Use the handmade snowflakes to decorate the windows or the Christmas tree.
▪ Collect favorite Christmas storybooks and set them out each year during the holidays. People love to recall those special times when someone read those treasured stories to them.
▪ Make a Christmas photo book, and add pictures each year. It is so fun to reflect back and see how people have changed and the different activities you did together.