Christmas trees tell stories. And the seven Christmas trees in the residence of the US ambassador in Makati have tales waiting to be told. US Ambassador MaryKay Carlson’s eyes twinkle with excitement when she talks about them.
“You will find seven trees that are six foot or taller,” Carlson said. “Every single one of the ornaments was placed by my husband and me. The staff helped on a few. But I have to say we zealously decorated them ourselves.”
Carlson hosted a barbecue party with guest chef Jay McCarthy last week. The theme was “The Great American Barbecue” and she dressed the part. She wore a long red shrug over her black ensemble, boots and a Santa hat that covered the top of her cowboy hat.
Carlson assumed office on July 21. The boxes containing their personal belongings arrived only last month. Inside some of those boxes are their Christmas trees and decorations. She and her husband, retired Foreign Service officer Aubrey Carlson, spent a long weekend to decorate their home.
The first tree that went up is a pristine white one placed in the lanai. It is a gift from Philippine UN representative Antonio Manuel Lagdameo and his wife Linda. It was handcrafted by the artisans of Tadeco Livelihood Training Center in Mindanao, under designer Maricris Floirendo-Brias.
“I’m so fascinated with this traditional Philippine tree made in Mindanao and handcrafted from bamboo … I have always admired these trees. We decorated it here,” she told Lifestyle. “But I have to say the tree is beautiful with nothing on it.”
Thus, the decor of the Filipino tree is kept to a minimum. It has gold ornaments such as a few balls, eucalyptus branches and berry twigs. White light makes it glitter and the overall effect is serene, almost ethereal.
The Carlsons have two trees in the family, both in the main rooms of their home. The first is in the dining room, a 21-year-old tree that Carlson bought in Beijing when she was assigned there.
“If you look and see these branches you will see a floral wire. Every single branch has them because the tree is kind of pitiful. But I love this tree because it has a lot of space,” she said. The floral wire is used to support the weight of each branch. For the envoy, it is a very personal tree.
The Carlsons’ trees get new ornaments each year. Two of each kind, to be precise. They are for their daughters, now aged 20 and 24. Carlson intends to give the ornaments when their girls decide to decorate their own trees, to continue the tradition.
“Aubrey and I are delighted that our daughters will be able to join us in the Philippines for the holidays this year! To me, the holidays are about family and friends. And sharing,” she said. “I enjoy decorating for Christmas because I love to share with our guests the fun and joy of the season, and see them delight in looking at the decorations we’ve collected over the years, from all of the places we’ve lived.”
Santa in barong
The trees give an insight into who the Carlsons are and where they have been. In one, there are characters from “The Wizard of Oz,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Blue’s Clues” and “The Grinch.” US presidents are represented in that tree as well.
The newest additions are two Santa Clauses in barong Tagalog. Among the ornaments, they also have three couples dancing the tango, which include a pair of two men and a pair of two women. These trinkets from Argentina represent the LGBT community.
“It’s our family tree. So things that our daughters have made, things that my husband had in Moscow are here. There are things from Ukraine, Argentina and India,” she said.
The second family tree is in the living room of their private quarters. Like the first one, it carries the family ornaments that they have collected through the years. The main difference is that the second tree holds unique Christmas balls.
“I love celebrations of all sorts. I have such wonderful memories of spending Christmas together with my family—my mom, dad, sister and two brothers—in Little Rock, Arkansas,” she said. “I have loved recreating holiday traditions with Aubrey and our daughters, even as our diplomatic lifestyle has taken us to many countries around the world.”
She calls another tree the Alliance tree. It is decorated with the American flag and a small parol. The lights are red, blue and white. It can be found in the garden. Another tree is in the library and it has jeweled ornaments from India. The tree in the reception room is decorated with red and gold ornaments.
The pool tree was inaccessible during our visit. But it is easy to understand why it’s called that. It’s nearest to the pool and the only one whose lights are reflected on the water from across the garden.
Carlson said that it took them only two days to finish decorating.
“I counted 27,000 steps in one day, just running around hanging up garland, putting every one of those little ornaments on. It’s time-consuming. I’ve always been asked how long it took. But I always say that the better question is, how much fun did you have?” she said.
But the Christmas trees and the ornaments are not the only things that she brought with her.
“One of the oldest and most special holiday items I have is the textile Nativity scene made by indigenous people in Bolivia, which I got in 1981 when I was a student there,” she said. “I love that the manger animals include llamas and lions! And that the condor, a sacred bird in the Andean region, is featured with the angels watching over the manger.”
She also has a noteworthy Santa Claus mug collection. She has over 200 of them in different shapes, sizes and facial expressions.
“Most of the Santa mugs are vintage, including some that have my own ‘vintage’ birth year stamped on the bottom! Others are more modern versions of these classic mugs, which were common in the US in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she said.
She uses them to serve coffee, cider, or milk punch during the holiday season.
“I let guests choose which mug to use. Some guests take a really long time picking out exactly which one they like best—the faces and designs are so different and engaging. I love to see them enjoy the mugs as much as I do,” she said.
She talked fondly about her father’s brisket that he cooks for over eight hours, which she said she could never replicate. Carlson admits she didn’t inherit her father’s cooking genes. Instead, she has the holiday and decorating genes. Last week’s barbecue was too early for a Christmas party, but thanks to Carlson’s energy and decorations it felt like one.
“I love the diverse ways people celebrate. I am so happy to be in the Philippines to enjoy the ‘ber’ months and experience the amazing traditions here,” she said.
That attitude will make her fit right in in a country where people take Christmas seriously.