Leslie Gentzle knows the most wonderful time of the year need not be the most
You’ll never spot an inflatable snowman in the backyard of the interior designer’s Imperial Golf Estates home—nor animatronic reindeer, oversized candy canes or gingerbread men, or light displays synced to the strains of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Instead, above her front door, a simple garland welcomes guests. Adorning it: starfish, sea grapes, and two large ribbons made of twine.
“I do not like cold weather. I do not like red. I do not like green. I do not like fluff,” says Gentzle. “I like very natural stuff in my decor—oysters and rope, for instance. I want it to feel like it’s 100 years ago, we’re living on the beach, and decorating with whatever we can find there.”
A fourth-generation Floridian, Gentzle grew up in Leesburg and studied at the International Academy of Design and Technology in Tampa before moving to Naples in 2005. “I’ve always loved the beach,” she says. “That’s what drew me down here. And that’s what inspired my style.”
Understated yet festive, Gentzle’s Christmas decor softens the over-the-top consumerism so often associated with the holiday, shifting the focus to what she values most—friends, family, and faith.
When Gentzle married her husband, Mike, in 2008, she purged everything she had from college and her single years. In 2011, they purchased a 1980s ranch house, which they completely remodeled over the course of 10 months in 2020.
“Last year was our first Christmas in the house as we originally imagined it,” she says. Their vision was an open, airy space that exudes tranquility with a soft palette of blue, taupe, ivory, and white—shades that mimic the seashore.
In the family room, their tree is decorated in the same color scheme, which helps it blend effortlessly with their year-round decor, including a television console with distressed white tin doors, salmon-colored throw pillows, and an armchair upholstered in a sea-life pattern. Gentzle continues the marine theme subtly with her ornament selection. Blue crabs, sailboats, coral, starfish, and shells mix with more traditional motifs—angels, Christmas trees, and a manger—made from materials resembling driftwood.
She collected the assortment at various places and times over the years. “Some came from the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, where we go every other year to see the lights,” she says. “But I’m always on the lookout. If I see something in July that I think would look good for Christmas, I snag it.” Gentzle got many ornaments and other accessories from Peddler’s Wagon in Eustis, just outside her hometown. “It has cool, eccentric pieces you wouldn’t find anywhere else,” she says.
As much as Gentzle loves nature, the tree itself is artificial. “I’m a perfectionist,” she says. “I need to be able to bend and shape branches.” At the same time, she doesn’t want visitors to detect it’s a fake. “That’s my main qualm about tree skirts,” she says. “You can always tell [a tree is artificial] because there are no needles collecting on them.” In lieu of a traditional skirt, she uses a wicker tree collar from Target. A candle lends that nostalgic evergreen scent.
The dining table is set with a burlap runner, accented by deep blue goblets and napkin rings. As a centerpiece, she placed a giant clamshell above a mound of succulents and silver balls. The shell holds four pillar candles representing the four weeks and themes of Advent: hope, love, joy, and peace. “It’s important to me that my children [Jack, 11, and Weston, 7] know Christmas is really about Jesus, not Santa Claus,” she says.
Gentzle’s nativity scene also emphasizes the reason for the season. Hers is a modest version, featuring only the Holy Family and the Three Wise Men in front of a trio of mirrors. “When we moved back in after the renovation, I knew I wanted a nativity scene that matched the rest of the house,” she says. The mirror idea came from a magazine. “It was a little out of the ordinary and I loved how it looked like windows from a church,” she says. “I kept my eyes open and found some at Hobby Lobby.” The figurines wear ivory gowns with platinum-colored accents. After an exhaustive search, Gentzle finally found them “on Amazon, of all places.”
In the kitchen, she places a row of cyclamens on her windowsill—“that’s my one pop of red,” she says—below one of her favorite DIY decorations, her take on Florida snowflakes. She wrapped a tension rod with greenery and hung pearly, hand-beaded starfish from it. “I am very thrifty,” she says. “I can’t stand spending a lot of money on things I can make.”
While Gentzle designs and executes the look for the front and interior of her home, her sons have complete freedom to decorate their playhouse in the backyard however they like. “We went to Dollar Tree and Walmart and let them go wild picking out decorations,” she says. Their picks: colored lights, red tinsel, garland, glitter bows, and a gingerbread mailbox.
That whimsical playhouse gets a lot of attention the first Saturday of December when the Gentzles host their annual backyard potluck and movie night. For the last five or six years, about 25 neighborhood families have turned out to socialize, watch The Polar Express on a big inflatable screen, and snack on s’mores prepared with marshmallows toasted over
“A friend who has since moved away suggested the movie night,” Gentzle says. “She had the screen, and we had a fenced-in yard. After they left the area, we purchased our own screen to keep the tradition going because it was so much fun.”
Another treasured tradition she has with her sons includes making simmer pots for neighbors and other family friends. “I don’t like purchasing gifts,” she says. “I prefer giving something homemade, plus I love the experience with my boys.” Her recipe: oranges, cloves, cinnamon, and little clips of pine needles. “Just add a little water and simmer on the stove all day,” she says. “It makes your house smell
On Christmas Eve, the family worships at Moorings Presbyterian Church, then enjoys a home-cooked meal starring Gentzle’s grandmother’s prime rib, capped by decorating Christmas cookies. “It’s a low-key but lovely holiday,” she says.