Carrying on tradition: Altoona woman shows her German roots in holiday decor

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec Dené Schaut decorates one of the numerous Christmas trees that adorn her home in Altoona.

Most people put up one, maybe two, Christmas trees in their house for the holidays.

Dené Schaut of Altoona has at least a dozen — she stopped counting after that — and she keeps all of them but one up year-round. She decorates them for other holidays, too.

“It depends on the size and how many you want to count,” she said with a laugh. “I also decorate them for Easter, Fourth of July, Halloween,” she said.

Christmas trees aren’t the only holiday things Schaut collects. She’s got a host of Santa Claus figurines and several Nativity sets that she’s acquired over the years. Two favorite ones, a Santa and a Nativity scene, are both ones that she’s had since high school.

Schaut’s love of all things Christmas stem from her German roots. Her maternal grandfather immigrated from Bavaria and since then, her family has kept up its ethnic traditions.

Schaut remembers dancing in the German dance troupe as a young girl and participating at many events at Altoona’s Bavarian Aid Society hall.

But the annual visit from St. Nicholas every Dec. 6, his feast day according to religious tradition, is what she most remembers. Although different countries celebrate the saint’s commemorative day in various ways, the Germans honor him in their own unique fashion.

On his feast day, families would be suddenly startled in their homes, while gathered in the evening, by the sounds of someone knocking on their windows and rattling chains outside, Schaut said.

“It would scare you when you’d hear it,” she said. “Then you’d kneel down and say your prayers.”

She recalls as a young child, a tall darkly-clothed figure in top hat and long coat would then come in the front door to dispense yummy food treats to the eager children. Strangely enough, the figure would know if the children had behaved and even know what they might have done earlier that day, she said.

Schaut continued the tradition when she moved away and started her own household. She began to collect Christmas items in earnest after her first husband, Casey Smith, suddenly passed away. She was only 27, and she had two young children at the time:  her son, Nicholas, named after St. Nicholas, and her daughter, Casey, her father’s namesake.

“It was like therapy for me,” she said. “It was something I found comforting and it took my mind off of things.”

Now her two children are young adults, in their 20s. Dené has remarried to her husband, Tim, who has helped with her Christmas passion. A woodcarver in his spare time, several of his hand-carved Santas decorate the Schaut split-level home.

The rustic nature of the pieces fit in well with the overall theme of the home and also the decorations, which are mainly old-time, country and Primitive in style. On the walls are quilts that Dené and her mother made that feature either nostalgic versions of Kris Kringle or snowmen. Others are decorated with another primary theme in the home, that of animals such as deer, moose and bears.

The nature theme is carried through in the Christmas trees, many of which are trimmed with pine cones, artificial birds like red cardinals, which Dené said her mother and father loved to feed, and stars.  Sprinkled throughout the rooms on both levels are antiques such as a Victrola.

Two trees have unusual ornaments — made by her sister-in-law — that use a special traditional Polish method to paint eggshells. The concept calls for first waxing then painting the eggshells to create lovely ornaments.

As her collection has expanded, Dené has concentrated on certain brands of decorative items over the years. She has many Santa Claus figures by artist Jim Shore. Her trees upstairs in the living room are decorated with several pewter ornaments from the Wendell August Forge company in Grove City, and she also has a nativity set from that company. Downstairs, she has many pieces in a large Nativity set by the Fontanini Store in Wisconsin.

Schaut usually begins her Christmas decorating while she’s handing out Halloween candy on trick-or-treat night. It helps that almost every tree is already up, and she has several of the more fragile Santas in place, but she said she does put away most of the collection away every year.

Her children now help her get the bins out to prepare for the holidays, especially because they’ve already decided which decorations they’d like to have someday. Schaut even added more ornaments and other items to the collection on a recent trip to Germany, which she recently got to see for the first time.

“Every year I keep thinking I’ll downsize, but then it just seems to grow,” she said. “When people see it, they love it all because they know this is me.”