Time to Shine: A Holiday Home Tour

Floral designer Sybil Sylvester helps a friend create a welcoming and joyful atmosphere inside and outside in preparation for a celebrated holiday home tour in Birmingham, Alabama
living room holiday decor
In the living room, floral designer Sybil Sylvester dressed the mantel and chandelier with mixed garland enhanced with lichen, olive, and acacia branches; smilax vine; and other greenery.

We all want our homes to shine during the holidays as we anticipate visits from family and friends and perhaps some larger-than-usual gatherings. But what if you were expecting throngs of visitors tramping through your house over the course of a weekend? That’s exactly what faces the intrepid and generous souls who open their houses for charitable holiday home tours.

Alice and Bob Schleusner in Birmingham, Alabama, know a thing or two about this experience, as they have thrice offered their homes to the Independent Presbyterian Church’s celebrated fundraiser, a local tradition for more than 70 years. “It’s such a great cause,” says Alice. “It’s hard to say no!”

stair rail decked in greenery
The staircase was wrapped in mixed garland with acacia and olive branches added in.
In a bright windowsill, an airy, tall arrangement of ilex berries, pine, and other branches of greenery spring from a rustic long wood box that is bedded with moss.
“I wanted the window arrangement to look like it was scooped up in the forest and planted right in the box,” says Sybil.

Alice engaged friend and Birmingham floral talent Sybil Sylvester of Wildflower Designs to ease the burden and bring the beauty. “We wanted the overarching look to be as natural and seasonal as it could be, bringing the outdoors in,” says Sybil.

“Sybil knows I don’t do froufrou, and I think the designs are beautiful and not over-the-top,” says Alice. The pair also wanted the decor to be in harmony with the interiors designed by Marjorie Johnston, which feature glorious rugs throughout. (Alice was a purveyor of fine rugs for 40 years before selling her business to protégé Paige Albright, who helped select some pieces for this home).

For the holiday home tour, a large mable-topped kitchen islands holds a collection of nutcrackers displayed on a small oriental runner
In the kitchen, a marble-top island displays nutcrackers and Santa figurines on a small fine rug.
dining room decorated for a holiday home tour
A large, open room accommodates fireside dining and after-dinner conversation by the hearth.

To achieve cohesion downstairs, the floral designer threaded similar materials and textures throughout. Standard mixed garlands became custom, woven with branches, berries, smilax vines, and eucalyptus pods.

“There are important considerations when decorating for a house tour, primarily scale and placement,” says Sybil. “People are not coming for a dinner party and sitting down and lingering; they are moving in and out at a fairly rapid pace, so things need to be visible and dramatic. Smaller gestures would be lost.”

A gathering of blue-and-white porcelain vases are filled with blue delphinium, sea holly, red amaryllis, and red ilex berries
Alice’s blue-and-white porcelain is filled with delphinium, sea holly, amaryllis, and ilex berries.
A table set with Christmas tree-themed china and green glass goblets
Green crystal goblets accompany china and glassware bearing a Christmas tree motif.

With that in mind, Sybil festooned the living room chandelier and added branches and vines to the mantel garland to create height and movement. “On the coffee table, I placed a dramatic and vivid arrangement that was larger than standard for that space, so it would stand out,” says the designer.

living room holiday decor

A black urn bursts with deep-red peonies, butterfly ranunculus, spray roses, fern fronds, and pieris.

On the staircase, practicality was in play: Instead of wrapping the entire railing with greenery, she created two sections, making it easier for a crowd to traverse the stairs.

For the bedrooms, she departed a bit, selecting colors and materials inspired by the setting. Coppery hues dictated the choice of pine cones cleverly used as garland on the headboard in a guest bedroom.

“The coppery tones seemed to call out for pine cones,” says Sybil of this guest room.

The main bedroom required softer colors and more delicate pieces—wreaths of tallow berry, eucalyptus buds, privet, and lichen tied with blue-gray ribbon.

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The wreaths are attached to the two front posts, with a third is attached to the canopy frame, centered above the headboard. Four airy white panels hang from each corner of the canopy
A trio of wreaths adorns a canopy bed in the sophisticated, airy main bedroom.
A wreath hangs from the mirror in the sleek white and gray master bath with marble counters
Sybil used the same wreath design in the en suite bath.
detail photo of pine cone garland
A closer look at the pine cone garland used to trim the antique headboard in the guest bedroom
holiday decor for a dresser top
A petite wreath of smilax vine, elaeagnus whips, and tiny pine cones is a sweet detail on a bedroom dresser.
A spray of greenery adorns a snowshoe.

To create some excitement outside the house, Sybil used abundant greenery and ilex berries on the mailbox and in window boxes. The decision to use the bright berries proved prophetic as rain pelted down for most of the tour weekend; the ilex added a cheerful note in the otherwise gloomy skies.

Because the rain diverted visitors through the garage, Sybil, in a tongue-in-cheek move, strung up a clothesline to which she randomly pinned pieces of a Santa suit to “dry out.” Not even the rain could dampen the festive spirit of everyone involved in this worthy and wonderful holiday tradition. ’Tis the season after all.

Outdoor Holiday Decor

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tudor-style brick home with a magnolia leaf wreath on the door
Natural decorations complement the evergreen landscaping.
Greenery and ilex berries cover the post of an ornate black mailbox
Abundant greenery and vivid red ilex berries on the mailbox add curbside appeal.
front door holiday wreath with red ribbon
On the front door, Sybil tucked bits of lichen into a magnolia and pine cone wreath.
Holiday greenery follows the brick arch over an outdoor circular fountain built into the patio wall. Vases of red berries flank each side.
The holiday cheer extends to the patio and its splashing fountain.
Detail photo of greenery above an outdoor wall fountain. A red bow adorns the face of a medallion, from which the water flows
A simple red bow accents the spout's ornate medallion.
patio container garden
Year-round plantings on the patio include topiaries and other potted shrubs, herbs, and flowering annuals.
Window box holiday decor - ilex berries tucked among kale and other seasonal plants
Cut branches of ilex berries appear to grow among the window box plantings.
garage decor for a holiday home tour
Between the garage doors, a lantern and planter are dressed for the season.

By Alice Welsh Doyle | Photography by Laurey W. Glenn

This story originally appeared in Flower magazine’s November/December 2019 issue. Subscribe, find a store near you, or sign up for our free e-newsletter.