The mantel often is the showpiece of a fireplace. Family pictures and treasures may sit atop it. But areas below it - the hearth and the surrounding space - usually are forgotten or sparingly decorated.

"Traditionally, people limit themselves to decorating just the mantel," says Robyn Arvedon, spokeswoman for HomeGoods, the Framingham, Mass.-based chain. But "because the fireplace is such a focal point in the room, you can decorate the surround and hearth area, too.

"It gives you the opportunity to use larger objects. On the mantel, you're traditionally limited to smaller items."

When decorating around the fireplace, you'll need to keep some things in mind, especially during winter when it's in use. If your fireplace is a wood-burning one and you plan to light it, be sure to remember sparks might fly.

Pam Milam, an interior rearranger and owner of Reinvented Rooms in Fresno, Calif., has wood-burning fireplaces at her home.

"If my fireplace was going and I had my fire-screen doors open or had no fire screen, then I'd move it back," she says of any decor she might have around the fireplace. "There are sparks, so you do have to be careful."

One way to keep the sparks contained is with a fireplace screen. Many fire screens are all metal, while others incorporate other elements such as candles or stained glass pieces.

But even if you have a gas fireplace, a fire screen can still provide a decorative element.

"Fireplace screens really enhance the area below the mantel," says Kathy Boone, a partner of Tassels, a fine gifts and home accents store at Fig Garden Village, in Fresno, Calif. "They also make the fireplace look more realistic."

Whether your fireplace burns gas or logs, other items you can set out to make it look real include fireplace poker sets and racks to hold wood.

"A lot of people put out decorative containers for logs," Milam says. "I'd look for a neat, old copper cauldron or pot and put logs in that."

Other decorative metal items that can be used include metal wall art, panels or sculptures. Stone sculptures, ceramic vases and tall candle pillars also can enhance the areas. Natural elements also can provide interest, Boone says.

"Sometimes, while doing some interior designing, we'll use baskets of pine cones or birch logs to create decor at the base," she says. "We'll also do preserved trees or urns with plants."

Even during days or warmer months when you're not using your fireplace, you can find ways to make it presentable. Candles can be placed inside the fireplace. Groups of candles and candleholders also can be used on the outside. Milam uses candles with the fireplace in her living room.

"My fireplace is the[worst] fireplace in the world," she says with a laugh. "It's flat and has no dimension. [The fireplace opening] is about a foot off the ground."

She placed a low table in front of the fireplace, then completed the look with candles both inside the fireplace and on top of the table.

"The table hides the space and it gives the fireplace dimension," she says. "Candles on the table draw your eye up and into the big pillar candles placed inside the firebox."

Fresno floral and interior designer Doug Alves also likes to use candles and plants inside and around the fireplace.

"In the springtime, a lot of times people don't use the fireplace," he says. With these items there, "you don't have an empty area. You can make a wreath stand [with a wreath on it] and put it in front of the fireplace. . . . You can decorate it with just about anything."

How and where you place the decor items will depend on the size of the fireplace and if you prefer symmetry. *