Keeping it Real

Allison Mills knows what she wants for Christmas—minimal fuss. Her holiday decor's checklist: fresh greenery, touches of black and repurposing what she has on hand.


By LuAnn Brandsen
Photos by Kim Cornelison Produced by Bonnie Broten

Allison Mills kick-starts each holiday season with a gift to herself. “I keep things very simple and meaningful to allow for more time with family,” the mother of four says. “I don't want to have tubs and tubs of things I have to get out and then put away. I like to use things I find readily or already have in my house.”

Allison's holiday decorating plays off her penchant for a country Christmas—albeit in suburban Eau Claire, Wisconsin. It starts with inspiration drawn from the natural materials and simple palette of her new farmhouse-style home itself. Greenery is fresh (sometimes cut from trees on Allison's family farm); wreaths and garlands are largely unadorned (except for ribbons). Black is the surprise color, teamed with traditional green and red. Its contemporary feel keeps the look cozy, but chic.

Cheery Welcome

A striped ribbon echoes shades of the stairs' black newel and door hardware. Allison tucked evergreen branches into a porch planter box that can slide indoors or out. Leftover tree ornaments add pops of red.

Easy Bake

The kitchen island's marble top expertly hosts the family's annual tradition of baking sugar cookies. (Marble's cool surface helps keep dough from sticking.) The finished goodies get tucked inside small boxes and canning jars for friends and neighbors. A bottle rack with mugs and bins with drink labels make a nifty beverage station when company arrives.

“I try to use what I have and in a way it wasn't intended to be used. It's more interesting and just more personal.”
—Allison Mills

Chalk it Up

Blackboard gift tags inspire the holiday scheme, which includes a small slate atop the living room's tree. Allison decorates about 10 days ahead of Christmas so evergreens stay fresh. The family cuts the tree at a local farm, trims it with kid-made and store-bought ornaments, then tosses a blanket underneath.

The Quiet Side

A painted buffalo check motif behind the bed makes an affordable alternative to wallpaper. After marking lines with painter's tape, Allison painted a beige top coat with glaze mixed in. Four wreaths add a festive layer without disrupting the room's restful ambience.

Merry Stress Less

Give yourself a party pass

Feel free to choose the gatherings you'll enjoy and feel just as free to skip the rest.

Rethink the perfect present

Give small gifts, handwrite notes or buy lunch. Send kids on a scavenger hunt to find their presents, and they'll talk about it for years.

Downsize decor

Try a tabletop tree instead of a 15-foot fir. Sprinkle presents around the house on chairs and tables to fill in as decor.

Take a gap year

Pare back for a season to give yourself a break. Or rotate things in and out of your schedule annually—big holiday dinner this year, but small presents and no cards. It's OK to sit out a turn (or more) to see what you miss and what you most enjoy.