Holiday Tradition with an Edge

At the O’Hara home, holiday décor is by design, tempered with plenty of nostalgia

Fresh evergreens, citrus, and faux fur stockings decorate the period fireplace, capturing the spirit of the season and the expert blend of old and new in the stately 1920s Georgian.
Fresh evergreens, citrus, and faux fur stockings decorate the period fireplace, capturing the spirit of the season and the expert blend of old and new in the stately 1920s Georgian. (Troy Thies)

Like many families, when the O’Haras gather for Christmas, tradition guides the celebration. The gracious Georgian in South Minneapolis welcomes grown children home from points east and south. The tree—always real—is decorated and surrounded by packages, the dinner menu—Julia Child’s beef bourguignon—is set, and the table glitters with heirloom crystal and china.

Yet the tree is a bit edgy with black-and-white ornaments, tempered with traditional gold, and the evergreen garland pops with fresh citrus. Blush-colored ribbons and accents update the look. It meshes perfectly with the iconic Platner and gold Pedro Friedeberg hand chairs flanking the fireplace.

The Christmas tree and wrapped gifts beneath are always “in theme.” This year, it’s black, white, blush, and gold.
The Christmas tree and wrapped gifts beneath are always “in theme.” This year, it’s black, white, blush, and gold. (Troy Thies)

It’s not surprising that Martha O’Hara navigates the delicate balance between old and new more skillfully than most family matriarchs. She is founder of eponymous design firm Martha O’Hara Interiors. And this is a special year: It’s the first time Martha and Steve, daughter Kate, and son Todd have celebrated Christmas at home in seven years.

The O’Haras have been spending the holidays in Austin, Texas, to be with Martha’s mother, who passed away earlier in the year. So the Minneapolis homecoming is tinged with sadness along with the joy. “The children, the grown children, have really been missing their Christmases at home,” says Martha.

Hand-painted silk de Gournay wallpaper in a wisteria pattern honors Martha’s southern roots. Her mother’s punch bowl is center stage of the festivities.
Hand-painted silk de Gournay wallpaper in a wisteria pattern honors Martha’s southern roots. Her mother’s punch bowl is center stage of the festivities. (Troy Thies)

So she and Steve pulled out all the stops, resurrecting Christmases past—with a few updates, in part because the house itself was updated since they last spent the holidays here.

The O’Haras fell in love with the stately residence, designed by noted architect Ernest Kennedy in 1922, the moment they stepped into its formal, octagon-shaped foyer 25 years ago. Updates since then made the house more livable for the family of four, but an outdoor back staircase—icy and treacherous in winter—remained.

A few representatives from the nutcracker collection watch over Martha and Steve, prepping for the celebration.
A few representatives from the nutcracker collection watch over Martha and Steve, prepping for the celebration. (Troy Thies)

In 2015, they decided to move those stairs inside and, while they were at it, expand the kitchen for Steve, an amateur chef. Jeff Murphy of Murphy & Co. Design created a 112 story addition on the back of the house, helped redesign the kitchen, and reconfigured bedrooms and baths on the second floor. John Kraemer & Sons did the remodel, and the Martha O’Hara Interiors team gave the entire house a thorough facelift.

The foyer’s sweeping staircase, decked with evergreens and citrus, will welcome the family home.
The foyer’s sweeping staircase, decked with evergreens and citrus, will welcome the family home. (Troy Thies)

Now freshened and updated, the home maintains its historic feel and the formal charm that originally attracted Martha and Steve. But modern accessories and artwork add contemporary verve. In that formal front foyer, for example, a mod crystal-and-steel chandelier hangs from the rib-vaulted ceiling. White-on-white built-in bookshelves frame the sweeping staircase.

All is festooned with evergreens to welcome the season. Holiday central is the living room, where the Christmas tree has always been. “We always gathered as a family in front of the fireplace and opened presents,” says Martha.

And those gifts with their lovely wraps under the tree? That’s customary in the O’Hara household. Says Martha: “I do most often wrap Christmas presents in theme. I purchase the papers, so they are pretty well coordinated. The kids get it. They ask, ‘What’s your theme?’ I buy a lot of papers, so they can stay in theme,” she laughs.

The old-fashioned tree in the new back entry is bedecked with classic Christopher Radko ornaments and includes a toy train—both part of the family’s tradition.
The old-fashioned tree in the new back entry is bedecked with classic Christopher Radko ornaments and includes a toy train—both part of the family’s tradition. (Troy Thies)

Growing up, the children always preferred old-fashioned-looking trees. This year, the second tree in the new back entry area takes on that role, decorated with favorite Christopher Radko Santas—many from the “Santas Around the World” collection. Some of Todd’s old LGB train, which he always sets up for Christmas, also has a spot. “He’s got all kinds of cars,” says Martha. “He could run the track all around the house. He used to always put the train around the tree and all over the living room.”

The holiday table mixes old and new: The old china, Martha’s maternal grandmother’s, dates to the early 1900s.
The holiday table mixes old and new: The old china, Martha’s maternal grandmother’s, dates to the early 1900s. (Troy Thies)

The nearly three-foot-tall Father Christmas, who comes out each Thanksgiving to herald the approaching holiday, is in his place in the dining room. And the nutcrackers with their bowl of nuts, one of Martha’s fond memories from her own childhood, are in the kitchen. All is ready for Martha and Steve to welcome the grown kids home for Christmas.


Digital Extra: Southern Punch Party

Originally from Tennessee, design entrepreneur Martha O’Hara shares some of her recipes for a traditional Southern punch, perfect for serving at your next holiday soirée.

Ingredients

4 c. ice
4 c. ginger beer
3 c. vodka
1 c. freshly squeezed lime juice
1 c. mint leaves, plus more for garnish
2 limes, sliced, plus more for garnish

Directions

In a large punch bowl, combine ice, ginger beer, vodka, lime juice, lime slices, and mint.
Ladle punch into glasses or copper mugs and garnish with more mint.

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