This holiday season will be like no other in memory. But Xiomara “Sami” Ugarte will still fill just about every room, surface and corner of her Wayzata home with festive Christmas decorations — even though fewer people will see them this year, at least in person.
During a normal holiday season, Ugarte’s decor sets the stage for the nine holiday parties she typically hosts — for extended family, her book club, her neighbors and several charities, as a “thank you” to their volunteers.
With the pandemic and Gov. Tim Walz calling for no social gatherings beyond immediate households, Ugarte thought about scaling back a bit on her decorating — perhaps not getting the huge natural evergreen that typically towers in the living room.
“I thought maybe I’d skip it,” she said. “But my family said we have to have a natural tree. I love to make my family happy.”
Besides, ordering a big tree from the tree farmer she calls “Mr. Santa Claus” (Rum River Tree Farm) helps support his small business. “We want to keep the economy going and keep people employed,” she said. “That’s very important to my husband [Dr. Roland Ugarte] and I.”
So right after Thanksgiving, Sami’s many themed Christmas trees, vignettes and Nativity scenes will come out of storage, and the annual transformation will begin.
“I’m still very much in the decorating mood,” said Sami, a retired choreographer. “As long as we’re all healthy, it puts me in the spirit of the season. We have to be so grateful for everything we have.”
Sami — and her love of Christmas — were both born in Mexico.
Her family moved to Texas when she was a baby. “Every year we would go back to Mexico at Christmastime,” she said. “The churches are so gorgeous. It left an impression.”
Many of her family’s holiday traditions are influenced by her Mexican heritage. They celebrate Christmas with a dinner of tamales, guacamole and chips. Her granddaughter carries the Baby Jesus into the dining room for Las Posadas, the religious festival celebrated in Mexico that commemorates the journey that Joseph and Mary made from Nazareth to Bethlehem. On New Year’s Eve, Sami’s birthday, the party includes piñatas.
Her decor includes vintage nativity sets from her mother and grandmother, and a set of red lace Christmas stockings and a sequined tree skirt made by her aunt in Mexico.
Sami started amassing Christmas decorations and filling her family’s home with them when her three children, now adults, were small.
“It just took off,” she said of her decorating. “My husband loves it. My kids love it. We just have a wonderful time, and create wonderful memories.
“I try to please someone in my family” with every decoration, she said. “My children give me ideas.” The Minnesota Vikings tree, trimmed in gold, purple and horns, was suggested by her two sons. A patriotic wreath and tree honor a nephew in the military. A cowboy-booted Santa and Southwest-themed tree is for her husband, a native Texan.
There’s a skating angel tree for family members who like figure skating, and a Grinch tree to please her grandchildren.
“I get the biggest kick out of seeing kids [react to the decorations],” she said. “Their eyes light up. It’s a joy to see them so happy.”
For 29 years of holiday decorating, Sami has had designer Mark Schaffer, Mark James Interiors, at her side. She collects the decorations and he comes over every year to set up the vignettes, a two- to three-day process.
“He’s part of my family,” she said. “I tell him a theme, and he works with what I have.”
Schaffer learned to decorate elaborate Christmas trees when he worked as a store designer for Gabberts, sometimes doing 13 trees a day. Every year he decorates 21 clients’ homes for the holidays, he said, but Sami’s decor is the most extensive.
“Every year it got a little bit bigger and bigger,” he said. “She buys it, and I put it up. We work together.” Sometimes Sami offers direction, such as, “Let’s do all white in here,” he said. But mostly she gives him free rein.
When Sami’s children were small, Schaffer remembers being at their home in the morning when they were heading off to school, and seeing their excited faces as they imagined how the house would look when they came home. “It’s been so much fun,” he said.
The year for cheer
Decorating for the holidays is more important than ever, Schaffer said. “It’s fun to bring cheer to families, especially this year. Families are all by themselves. They need something to put them in the holiday spirit.”
When it comes to holiday decorating, his philosophy is more is more. “Go over the top. It’s never enough. You have to go overboard, it’s such a bad year.”
Sami is disappointed she can’t host her usual gatherings this year. “I would love to make money for charities,” she said, but that’s not possible during a pandemic. “If we do any entertaining, it will be with masks and shields.”
Instead of parties, she and her daughter may collaborate on a virtual tour of her home for family and friends who can’t experience it in person this year. “If I can spread a little holiday cheer, I will.”
Most years, family and friends contribute ornaments and help her add finishing touches. She has so many decorations at this point that she often donates holiday decor to families in need to spread a little more holiday cheer.
“If you bring the Christmas spirit into it, it makes everything magical,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if it was always Christmas, and everyone was in the Christmas spirit all the time?”