Jaws drop when first-time guests walk into Kate Steinkopf’s home during the holidays.

Every year, her spacious two-story house in Eagan is transformed into a magical fairyland of themed trees, sparkling garlands and festive vignettes.

Steinkopf doesn’t do it alone. She has a holiday helper, mentor and cherished friend in Glenda Nelson.

“We inspire each other. We have an amazing time — it’s just fun!” said Nelson.

The two women’s holiday partnership and year-round friendship started 12 years ago, when Steinkopf was a harried, time-strapped hockey mom who was also home-schooling her two sons, then ages 9 and 8. She didn’t have time for lavish holiday decorating. She was just looking for a little help organizing and staging the family’s toy-strewn basement.

“Someone said, ‘My friend likes to do that,’ she recalled. The friend turned out to be Nelson, a self-taught design enthusiast who works in law enforcement, but has a passion for decorating.

After she transformed Steinkopf’s basement, she offered to put up and trim her Christmas tree, as a favor to help out the busy mom.

“We worked together on the tree, chatted and shared Christmas memories,” Steinkopf said. “The tree was beautiful, but the true beauty was the friendship that blossomed.”

The two women are 15 years apart in age, but they hit it off immediately.

“I just felt comfortable with her and her sincerity, the genuineness of who she was,” said Nelson. “We have the same values — faith and friendship and caring for one another.”

Thus began an annual ritual of decorating Steinkopf’s home, and in recent years, her Up North cabin, too.

Three years ago, on their way up to the Steinkopfs’ newly built cabin, Nelson said, “It would be really fun to have a Christmas tree,” Steinkopf recalled. “So we pulled off the road, went to Menards and bought a tree. It was really tall, 12 feet, because the ceilings were high. We had to unload the pickup to get the tree in.”

Nelson also decorates her own townhouse in Prior Lake, but it’s much smaller than Steinkopf’s home, and Nelson said she doesn’t need help.

“I do offer to help, but she won’t let me,” Steinkopf said.

Helping her friend is a pleasure, said Nelson. “She knows it brings me a lot of joy. I decorate my daughter’s home, too. It’s about people feeling happy and making memories.”

An education

In the early years, when Steinkopf was busy with her boys, Nelson did much of the decorating. But now that Steinkopf’s sons are grown, she’s a full partner — and trying to learn the finer points.

“I have not passed the ribbon test,” said Steinkopf with a laugh. “I still don’t know how to flow ribbon.”

Nelson is also particular about trees and lighting.

“When we get prelit trees, we cut the lights off and wrap new ones deep in the tree, so the lights shine from within. Prelit ones go out, and they don’t have the sparkle we’re looking for,” said Steinkopf. “We’re all about sparkle and twinkle.”

Nelson has taught Steinkopf to start with an item or an idea that inspires her, then build around that.

In the Paris-inspired living room, nicknamed “the bistro,” the starting point was a huge mirror, a nod to the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.

The woodland decor in the sunroom/hearth room was inspired by nature. The trees and mantel are filled with deer, owls, squirrels and rustic birdhouses. “I love being outdoors in the woods,” said Steinkopf. “This is where we begin the day, and I sit here the most.” She leaves the woodland decor up into March.

The two women change up Steinkopf’s decor every year. “We move things around and repurpose,” said Steinkopf.

The red decorations that once filled the family room are now up at the cabin. This year, the family room is a “winter wonderland” theme in white and soft blue, complete with a furry white throw.

For Steinkopf and Nelson, the holiday season starts in October, when they start dreaming up ideas and planning how to execute them. They also go to an annual holiday house tour in Nisswa, Minn., to get ideas, an event they like because it’s a fundraiser for the local food shelf.

Whenever they’re out shopping, they snap pictures of whatever catches their eye and send them to each other. Then, when it’s time to start decorating, usually in early November, they spread all of Steinkopf’s decorations on the floor and get to work. When they’re done, they flip on the holiday lights and toast their efforts with a glass of white wine.

Steinkopf’s husband sometimes joins them in celebrating the pull-out-the-stops decor. “He was bah-humbug at first, but he loves it now,” said Nelson.

After the holidays, they shop end-of-season sales, and Steinkopf stores her new finds for next year.

Friends for all seasons

The friends also spend time together when they’re not decorating, sometimes once or twice a week, sometimes every two or three months when Nelson is in Arizona, where she lives part time.

They’ve also traveled together, to Spain and Portugal, with Nelson’s adult daughter.

“She has a family,” said Steinkopf. “But she’s like part of our family. She’s at every party we have, and the kids’ graduations.”

When it comes to hosting parties, which Steinkopf said doesn’t come naturally to her, she also relies on Nelson as a mentor.

“She brings so much wisdom to me,” Steinkopf said. “Entertaining is not my gift, but she taught me how to do it, and helps me through it. I’ve gotten so much better at the gift of hospitality.”

Like any friendship, they’ve weathered ups and downs together.

“We’ve been through a lot. It’s not always joyful,” said Steinkopf. One year, when Steinkopf’s late father was battling brain cancer, and she traveled to be with him, Nelson took care of the holiday decor.

“It was nice to come home and have all my Christmas decorations up,” Steinkopf said.

Another year while decorating, Nelson was on a ladder when she experienced a painful leg spasm, and Steinkopf rushed her to the hospital.

“Now they won’t let me go on ladders,” Nelson said.

Surprisingly, they’ve never had a disagreement.

“We’re both easygoing people,” said Steinkopf.

“I can’t imagine what we would disagree about,” said Nelson. “We’re both little kids at heart. Doesn’t everybody dream of a friend like that?”