A winter wonderland of trees

By Chelsea Retherford | Living 50 Plus

The halls are decked. The den is decked. The kitchen, the bedrooms, the bathrooms — every nook and cranny of the Krieger house in Florence has gotten the Christmas lift.

It’s a tradition that Joey Krieger said began with his father, Conrad, who loved the holiday as much as he does.

“He probably started doing it about 40 years ago. When he passed away, I kind of took it up,” Krieger said as he fluffed a lighted tree in his living room in late October.

The tree was one of a dozen or so that had been drug from the attic, set up, fluffed, and lighted all before Halloween. A handful of trees were already complete with ornaments. Yet, Krieger said he’d fallen behind this year.

Krieger admits he usually has his extravagant display up by the Sunday before Thanksgiving so he can enjoy the fruits of his labor during his week off from his other passion — band directing for Mars Hill High School.

Krieger said the task has become more challenging over the past four years since the school’s music program added a marching band. Still, in between football Friday nights and band competitions on Saturdays, Krieger always succeeds before his self-imposed deadline.

By the time he’s finished, he typically has about 30 trees lining the halls of his home — give or take one, two or six. He set a record for himself in 2019.

“That was the year we put up 36 trees,” he said.

Up to that point, he and his wife, Kelli, had a deal that seemed to work out for the both of them each year. He put everything up. She took everything down.

“Yes, but that’s the year he started helping me take them all down,” Kelli Krieger said with a laugh.

She said she always enjoyed the holiday too, but being married to an extreme decorator has helped her get more into the spirit. Now, she has her own sewing tree among the many themed firs in their home.

It’s decked with measuring tape, wooden spools, thimbles, and for garland, Kelli said she used red tatted lace hand-stitched by her mother and grandmother.

The Kriegers also have a fruit tree, a fine China tree and a silver tree in their kitchen. Walking into the next room, they have a teacher tree that displays every ornament a student has given Krieger in his 32 years at Mars Hill so far.

There is a cardinal tree, which holds an extra special place in the designer’s heart, but his favorite is likely the gold tree, which also happens to be the Krieger’s very first Christmas tree they purchased as a couple the December after they were married.

“That first Christmas, my grandmother had given us a Christmas tree. We had just finished dinner, and I was about to put it up,” said Joey, explaining that the Kriegers started out in a much smaller home. “Kelli was standing in the kitchen, and I just looked at her and said, ‘There is no way we’re going to have this Christmas tree. We went to Walmart, and we bought that tree right there.”

The tree has made an appearance as the star of the Kriegers’ home every year since, even among other stellar examples like the Alabama football tree, the Grinch tree, the Santa Claus tree, and what Joey calls is his “floosy tree,” which is decked in feather boas and a sparkling crown.

Joey said he’s added new trees over the years, beginning with the first year he took over from his father in 2003.

When the elder Krieger passed away 20 years ago, Joey said his stepmother gifted him lots of his dad’s ornaments and things as she couldn’t bring herself to put up that December. When Joey started out, most of the ornaments had belonged to his father.

Now, he’s added to his collection over the years, but he still puts out several of the decorations that started it all.

“I don’t know where it came from,” Joey answered when asked where he and his father found their shared obsession. “This is my grandfather’s farm; they were German, so they were Catholic. You know, they had a Christmas tree, but I don’t remember it getting this big until my dad started it. He just loved Christmas trees and started doing it.”

Joey admits he continues to add to his collection every year, though he’s begun to slow down.

At one time, he and his wife made a point to hit clearance sales the day after Christmas each year. Now, they hit up estate sales, yard sales, antique stores, and such, buying things here and there as they find great deals.

Several of Krieger’s trees have been gifted to him after the previous owner decided to upgrade or purge their old tree when the pre-lit lights stopped working.

“We don’t do the pre-lit lights anyway,” Joey said. “We like to add our own lights. So, we’ll take the tree, and we don’t mind that the lights aren’t working.”

In other cases, fellow church members have gifted trees to the Kriegers.

“Two years ago, a lady that went to church with us called me and said, ‘I want you to come see me. I’ve got something I want to give you,’” Joey said. “She had a Christmas tree that David Christopher had decorated for her. She said, when I’m gone, I want you to have that tree. So, I’ve got that tree, and then another lady who went to church with us gave us a tree that has a train around it. We’ve got a bunch of special things like that.”

It’s not just Christmas trees that decorate the Kriegers’s festive home. Joey also collects Christmas village pieces and nativity scenes.

This year, he plans to complete his winterscape of New York City.

Joey said he was inspired to hunt for bargains on the collectible buildings, like his replicas of the Empire State Building, the Chrysler and Flatiron buildings, and the ice skating rink at the Rockefeller, after several band trips to New York with his high school students.

“He took the band to New York, and we went to see ‘Phantom of the Opera’ at the Majestic Theatre,” Kelli said. “I found a Department 56 replica of the Majestic Theatre and bought it for him one year. Then, it kind of got out of hand.”

Another wintry London scene was also inspired by a band trip to the city in the United Kingdom. Joey said he has replicas of the Globe Theatre, Windsor Castle, Big Ben and other of Great Brittain’s architectural icons. Whenever students come to tour his home, Joey said they’re always excited to see some of the places they’ve visited.

Over the years, the Kriegers have invited church groups, co-workers, students and others to their home for an open house Christmas party. Though that’s slowed down since the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, Joey and Kelli said they still enjoy inviting guests to mingle and admire the spectacle.

Over the years, Joey has also been asked to share tips or even to decorate others’ homes.

“Oh no,” he answers emphatically.

“Everybody asks, well, how did you learn to do that? I say, I don’t know! I just start putting stuff on there, and I see how it goes.

“I wouldn’t tell anybody how to do it,” he said. “I don’t give out advice. I just like for people to come and see it and watch their faces light up. Everybody likes to look at Christmas lights.”