WHILE WE SCURRY like skittish city mice this hectic holiday season, Julie Thomas has had her decorating ducks in a row for weeks on her family’s mini-farm outside Snohomish.
Where she also has actual ducks. And chickens, and cats, and dogs, and sheep. (“A lot of people want to know about those,” she says. “They’re Babydoll Southdown, from England originally. They have that teddy-bear look to them; they’re always smiling.”)
As a professional lifestyle blogger and Instagram influencer (@littlefarmstead), Thomas also has inspiring and highly photogenic ideas. And now, she’s sharing those in her new book, “Little Farmstead Living: Creating a Country Life Just Past the City Limits” (Martingale, $34.99).
Six years ago, Thomas and her husband, Aaron, moved from a “fairly large house on a small lot” in North Bothell to a fixer-upper farmhouse in Maltby, just past some city limits, with their three sons, Hudson, Noah and Lincoln. They have an actual farmhouse (built in 1998, “which surprises people,” she says, because of its classic feel), fruit trees, flower beds, a pasture, a vegetable garden, a chicken coop, a riding arena, a barn and paddocks. So, also: endless opportunities for seasonal displays, inside and out. Which is why she starts decorating for Christmas in early November.
“Some people feel really opinionated that you don’t bring out Christmas until Thanksgiving is over,” she says. “I used to follow that rule, but I decorate for fall the first day of September, and I love to get Christmas ready and out and be able to enjoy it.”
There’s a whole chapter in her book called “Farmhouse Christmas.” So of course we took a little scurrying-mouse breather to quiz Thomas about a few of her favorite things, cozy, country-Christmas-wise.
Q: What are some holiday-decorating materials or techniques — or even attitudes — that can make Christmas feel more “country”?
A: One of the things I love most about decorating for a farmhouse-style Christmas is starting on the wraparound porch. Even if you have just a small covered entrance, bringing a touch of the holiday season outside helps greet friends and family before you even open the front door.
We have a Christmas tree on the porch and several galvanized buckets going up the steps, which are also filled with mini Christmas trees. My hope was to have a feeling of a Christmas-tree farm on the porch, and I love adding little antique pieces like a European sled.
One of our family’s most fun traditions is going up to the mountains every year and cutting down a Christmas tree. Any way you can bring the outdoors in is kind of the essence of a country Christmas. Anywhere you frequent, or have guests, just bring a little Christmas cheer. Consider putting a little tree in front of the garage, if you pull in there.
Q: How do you create place-specific vignettes?
A: That’s one of the elements: You want to create that story, or that feeling of Christmas activities. I enjoy setting up a little gift-wrapping station. It’s fun to have an idea or story you are trying to tell and invite that coziness into it. So I just corralled all our rolls of wrapping paper into a weathered antique water bucket to create a festive vignette that also has some practicality to it (no more last-minute hunting for the wrapping paper!). The chippy, sun-faded, red bistro chair in the entryway: Somebody could sit down to put on their shoes.
Q: I love your phrase, “It’s messy before it’s merry.” How does your decorating process work?
A: Oh, yes; it’s true! It takes some time to figure out where to best put decorations, and there’s usually a point it feels overwhelming or messy. With kids, pets and a busy household, it’s never just decorating … there’s always lots going on. It takes packing up some of the usual décor to make room for the holiday decorations.
I used to, in our last house, have all these bins, and we would take down so many sections of faux garland, and over the years, I’ve appreciated adding more natural items in so there’s not as much to store. We do have our favorites we bring out every year. I hope our children remember those things. Our youngest, now 10, loves going through a collection of children’s Christmas books. During the season, we’ll have those out in an antique crate in the family room, and I’ll catch him looking through those, and often we’ll read them together at night.
Pieces that are special and have meaning we keep every year. Other times, I love to create new ideas, so I tend to change certain things up. A lot of that is because I have a space inside of an antique shop (M&M Antiques in Monroe), so that provides flexibility by being able to “borrow” from my shop inventory or sell pieces that don’t quite fit. I also love going to Christmas markets and looking for new things to bring in. It’s kind of a natural flow. I also blog and am on Instagram, so I want to keep things fresh. I think a lot of us crave that mix of tradition and creativity.
Q: And imperfection is OK, right?
A: Yes. Definitely. That’s what gives a home, especially a country home, a lot of its character: really embracing a lot of those imperfections. Mixing a nice clean slipcover sofa in your house with chippy wood furniture — I love that some things have stood the test of time, and pairing that with clean linens or furniture. From my own taste, you can go too far when everything’s super-rustic, but I definitely love embracing those imperfections. It reminds you those items have most likely seen other families; that natural wear and tear means they’ve lived through the passage of time. That’s really nostalgic.
Q: Do you decorate your entire house?
A: We do pretty close to the whole house. Maybe not the master bathroom, but even the boys’ bathrooms, I’ll put a little touch in there, and the guest bathroom. I think our master bedroom was the last holdout, and I just recently started including it.
One of our traditions is that [each child] can pick an ornament once a year, and we’ll put that on the tree in their room. And, I don’t like thinking about that now, but one day they’ll have their own collection they can take with them.
Q: How do you know when you’re done?
A: A lot of times, I take it room by room. For me, it’s easiest to focus that way: Maybe one day do the family room, and the next day the dining room. If you look at it and you feel a little bit anxious or overwhelmed, things might be a bit too cluttered; you might not have left enough space. You want to be able to put a cup of coffee on your coffee table. Less really can be more. It’s going to feel fuller over the holidays, but don’t feel like you have to pull out everything that is stored away just because you have it. A joyful, special setting for the holidays with plenty of room to sit down and invite people in is key.
And I think sometimes you just have to live with it for a while to know, just like trying a new paint color with a sample. It could be the same thing, especially if you’re going to be hosting a party for friends or a family meal. Start early, and use the room; walk in and out. If you feel like something’s missing, it doesn’t have to be set in stone. You can keep changing it up.
I think you’ll know it when it’s done. You’ll just sense: “That’s good. We’re good.”