Bringing the family home for Christmas
Gathering the family for a relaxing celebration in their spacious Ilam home is the essence of Christmas for Christchurch couple Louise Chappell and Steve Riordan
Christmas lights twinkle above the doorstep and there's a pretty wreath on the front door. At Louise Chappell and Steve Riordan's house, where the Christmas trees went up in November, the kitchen is filled with the delicious smell of home baking.
It feels right. In an ideal universe, this is how a family home should be in the days leading up to Christmas – a sense of calm prevailing.
Louise and Steve's secret to a harmonious and joyful December is being organised well in advance and not making things any more difficult than necessary. The couple run a car rental business that keeps them super busy from the Christmas period through to February, but that doesn't mean missing out on precious time with their blended family of five adult children, plus their partners.
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Christmas Eve is when the big family get-together happens, usually followed by a family breakfast on Christmas Day.
"We started getting everyone over for Christmas Eve around seven years ago and it's the best thing we ever did," Louise says. "It's so easy and it means everyone's free to go off and do their own thing on Christmas Day."
Steve and Louise work during the day on Christmas Eve, so extensive food prep for the evening meal just isn't possible. Instead, a tasty spread, including salads, beef fillet and smoked salmon, is ordered from Traiteur of Merivale. Louise's daughter, Laura, usually puts a chicken in the oven to add to the smorgasbord. For dessert, Steve's son, Ben, and his partner, Jess, will contribute mini pavlovas served with cream and fresh fruit.
"I don't do anything – there's no stress at all – and we have the leftovers for Christmas Day."
Louise is in charge of Christmas decorations and these go up weeks in advance. For many years, her son, Sam, forbade her to put these up until after his birthday in early December, but now he has left home, Louise likes to roll out the Christmas makeover just after Canterbury Anniversary Day. She loves the classic Christmas look and creating a festive feel that is welcoming, but not overwhelming.
In the light-filled downstairs atrium, there is a pair of silver mini-Christmas trees in hessian-wrapped pots and a gorgeous display of fresh flowers that seem to hold a promise of summer holidays to come. Green garlands with Christmas lights twist around the balustrades leading upstairs.
The home's spacious open-plan living and dining space – beautifully decorated – is the perfect backdrop for social drinks and nibbles with friends and neighbours before Christmas. A formal black-and-white dining table arrangement, complete with red Christmas crackers and centrepiece candle, is set for guests. A festive garland has been placed on the room's upright piano, topped with family photos. Doors can be thrown open to both the formal lounge and the outdoor patio that overlooks neighbouring Ray Blank Park.
"We can easily get 60 or 70 people in here; we can open it up to make it a much more versatile space."
There is another small patio area off the informal family lounge that can also be used for entertaining.
Steve chose the site for this house 15 years ago, drawn by its private location next to the park. The home is beautifully designed for a family, with five bedrooms (including one that was added off the double garage for Laura), three bathrooms and open-plan living. The atrium linking the home's two storeys is a grand space, naturally lit through well-designed windows.
Three Christmas trees have pride of place downstairs. Over coffee, Louise explains how one of them is a kind of memory tree. Red tinsel, winding upwards, is complemented by candy canes, gold baubles and old treasures.
"When the children were little, I'd take them to Ballantynes and every year we'd choose a decoration, so I have the Santa decoration that Sam chose when he was five and the giraffe that Laura chose one year. There's one on there from the New Zealand Blood Service, where I worked for 20 years. All the decorations have memories."
Cherished gifts from Christmases past have their own special places, too. Many years ago, Sam and Laura bought their mother a soft toy monkey for Christmas and today this sits on one of the beds upstairs, next to a cheerful Christmas reindeer.
A small tree in the kitchen is a family favourite. It is hung with food-themed Christmas decorations, including little Christmas puddings and miniature iced Christmas trees. Beneath it is a trio of Santa biscuit tins stocked with shortbread. Nearby is a gorgeous small model village, all in white, set off by a scaled-down Christmas tree.
Louise has studied interior decorating and her talent in this area is obvious throughout the house and its festive decor. A textured wallpaper swatch has been put to use as a table runner on a downstairs table, while upstairs, patterned fabric has been converted to wall art. Louise has upholstered and hand-painted selected bedroom chairs. Her interest in folk art is expressed in a whimsical Santa-themed wreath she made one year, along with a large hand-painted Santa that today stands in the downstairs bathroom.
The silver-themed Christmas tree in the formal lounge is elegantly adorned with silver globes, crosses, flowers and ribbons.
"There was always the kids' tree, but I liked having my own tree, too."
A simple trio of figures found in Kaiapoi one year – a reindeer, a Santa and a snowman – add another lovely touch in that room.
Simple and not too fussy is what Louise aims for when she's decorating for Christmas, so there are red towels in the bathrooms and a beautiful nativity scene on display at the top of the stairs. Splashes of shiny colour, such as bowls of Christmas globes, add just the right touch of festive cheer. Christmas lights have been used sparingly and with care. Louise likes that people visiting the park can see lights twinkling on the Christmas trees inside her home.
Christmas has always been a special time for Louise, particularly when her children were young. She used to take them to Carols by Candlelight every year, packing a rug and a hamper of goodies, and make Christmas treats, such as star-shaped shortbread biscuits. Baking for Christmas is still a pleasure she shares with Laura.
Steve found the stress of the rental car business used to detract from Christmas, but that has changed as a result of the early preparations made and the laidback arrangements for the Christmas Eve family get-together.
"Our kids bring their partners," Louise says. "We play cards, eat, drink and be merry. Everyone stays late and it's a lovely day."
On one particularly special Christmas Eve that flowed through into the wee hours of Christmas Day, Ben got up at 2am, lit all the candles in the house and made a trail on the floor with Christmas lights leading from the guest bedroom to the Christmas tree, where an engagement ring and champagne was waiting for his then girlfriend, Jess. When the sun came up, they announced their engagement to the family.
"It was an exceptional Christmas gift."
Last year, they had fun dressing up in matching green jerseys decorated with a plum pudding motif, supplied by Laura. Presents are exchanged on a "secret Santa" basis: family members all buy a "quirky and fun" gift of a specified value. Once opened, these gifts are swapped. It takes the financial pressure off and adds to the day's entertainment.
In the off-peak season, well after Christmas, Louise and Steve often go travelling and their home reflects their adventures by way of various framed artworks and photos. They first caught the travel bug after the Canterbury earthquakes and now keep a map of the world on the downstairs office wall showing all the places they have visited.
The house came through the earthquakes well, with only cosmetic damage that was remedied through an internal refurbishment. The paintwork is largely neutral, again reflecting the couple's sense of classic aesthetics. One of Louise's favourite rooms is the formal lounge; painted in a dark palette, it is a restful retreat at the end of a hectic day.
Louise led the renovation including the upstairs bathroom off the master bedroom (which also has a generous walk-in wardrobe). With its shiny dark tiles, double vanity, spacious shower and stand-alone bath, it is a tasteful upgrade.
Family members regularly drop by to visit this welcoming home, but Christmas remains a very special time that unites them all.
"Our Christmas story is about family coming together. It's a busy time, but we all enjoy spending a relaxing evening together on Christmas Eve. It is a time of year that we love to share with each other."