BY SARA JORDAN-HEINTZ
The holiday season comes and goes in the blink of an eye. That’s why in 1994 SherieLee Schnell created a way for friends and family to savor the moment each year. Now in its 25th year, her 4,200-square-foot decorated farmhouse, dubbed Marshmallow World, offers up a cure for the holiday blues and a place to go when you need a little Christmas.
“You get so busy and do so much for the holidays that I decided to decorate my whole house and pick a few days around Thanksgiving to have people come over,” Schnell said.
The first year, a crowd of 40 toured her decked-out home, but now after over two decades, Schnell finds herself entertaining upward of 500 attendees over the course of her three-night open house.
It’s a year-long task designing her SherieLee festivity, with the actual decorations going up in November. She estimates there are over 100 trees in her collection, 750 tree skirts (perhaps a world record) and 52,000 bulbs that light up the interior and exterior of her house.
Schnell and her family reside in Chilton, Wisconsin, a small town about 40 miles south of Green Bay. By day, she works in a school’s media center. Off the clock, she’s known as the “Christmas Lady.” Her flair for style was cultivated by decades spent decorating for parties, weddings and funerals.
“Everyone in the area knows who I am,” she laughed. “I can get home from work and I’ll find boxes of Christmas ornaments on my front porch.”
The name Marshmallow World is taken from the title of a mid-century Christmas tune.
“I like Dean Martin and that song is what started it,” she noted.
All 14 rooms of her home feature some elements of the yearly theme.
This year is called “Let It Be Christmas,” inspired by Disney. Previous years’ themes include “Route 66,” “A Whoville Christmas” and “The Streets of Heaven.”
“I have a small collection of caroler dolls. Throughout the house, there are more movable dolls including Mickey and Minnie. Most of them have been with me for the 25 years. The animated characters are really hard to find anymore,” Schnell said.
Her furnishings are an eclectic mix of thrift store finds, vintage items and goodies made in her craft room. Her “mascots” — 18-inch-tall stuffed marshmallows — are hidden in each room. She even penned a children’s book called Marshmallow World, wherein a little marshmallow discovers his place in the world.
“I have to move them to new hiding spots each year; the kids notice if I don’t,” she said.
Her Christmas tree skirts take on a second life in the form of tablecloths, chair covers, curtains and pillows.
While her home is open by invitation only, friends, family and neighbors are allowed to bring companions. A freewill offering at the door is donated to a designated charity with a small portion going to fund the event.
“I always serve refreshments including wine, hot chocolate and cider and friends help me make food,” she noted. “I wanted this to be something families could come to and have their kids get all dressed up, drink hot chocolate and get goodie bags.”
Husband Todd Peterson and children, TaVea, Sterling and Santana, assist Schnell each year, striking just that right balance between providing elbow grease and following her instructions to a T.
“It’s creating something only open for 12 hours for three nights,” she said. “Some people come through the house and can’t believe I live here. This will sound really funny, but I hate clutter.”
Schnell’s love for Christmas began as a little girl.
“My mom and aunt would take all of us to see Santa at the mall and you had to walk through a snow mountain with elves working. It was all eye-level and I remember a dollhouse there, which I never got, but at the end, for 50 cents, you could go in a little store. It was the coolest thing. I would go with my six siblings and cousins,” she reflected.
Pieces from her past festoon tables, floors and walls.
“My dad made me a wooden table and chairs along with a rocking horse. I do have those with my favorite china tea set that is almost 50 years old,” she said. “I don’t have my favorite doll anymore — Timey Tell — she was my best friend. We could tell time together, especially for tea time.”
Schnell proudly hangs the ornaments she and her siblings made as children, as well as those handed down by her mother, grandma and aunts. Tinsel adorns the branches of some trees, while heirloom carousels decorate tabletops. Underneath one tree she arranges Barbies, Matchbox cars, PEZ dispensers, antique books, Sesame Street items, trains, clothing and wooden toys.
One prized possession is an original, aluminum tree that was crafted in nearby Manitowoc, Wisconsin at Santa’s Best.
“They just closed their doors this year. I had the privilege of working there for two years. It was awesome,” she said.
Marshmallow World offers a sprinkle of yuletide magic to its visitors — warming the hearts of even the most steadfast of curmudgeons.
“People used to tell me I was nuts. You put all this work in for a couple of hours of entertaining? It was easy to reply to that statement,” Schnell said. “If I can make someone forget about what life has handed them for an hour, that to me is worth it; people dealing with a life-threatening disease, illness, or loss of a loved one or job … I get out of it more than anyone can imagine. My reward is getting everyone in the holiday spirit.”
To learn more, visit Marshmallow World on Facebook. Schnell may also be reached at email@example.com.
Sara Jordan-Heintz is an award-winning writer, editor and historian. Her articles have been published by the Associated Press and in Discover Vintage America, Farm Collector and others. Her biography “Going Hollywood: Midwesterners in Movieland” is out now. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SaraEliz90 or contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org