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Festive Filoli: Historic estate opens doors to celebrate holidays in style

Photos Ellie Van HOutte/Town Crier
Volunteers, above and below, trim the Christmas trees for Filoli’s “Holiday Traditions,” which opens Friday. Los Altos resident Margaret Ong, left, serves as chairwoman for the second year. The event features an array of decorations, bottom.

What takes thousands of hours and 700-plus volunteers nearly a year to produce?

Clue: It’s a much-anticipated holiday event that began 31 years ago when a prominent Woodside family opened its home to friends during the holidays.

The home is Filoli, a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The owners were Lurline and William Roth of Matson Lines. And the event is the nine-day “Holiday Traditions,” which begins Friday night with a gala premier shopping party.

To celebrate the holiday season, the Roths filled their home with orchid leis from Hawaii, candles and fir trees. They placed wreaths made of holly and evergreens from Filoli’s 16 acres of English Renaissance gardens in every window – not a simple undertaking considering that the house is 36,000 square feet. It is recognized as one of the finest remaining country estates of the 20th century.

The wow factor

No wonder it takes tons of time and talent to ready Filoli for the holiday event, which supports the estate’s preservation and stewardship.

In keeping with tradition, the house will be aglow with lights and festooned with greenery and flowers. The foyer will boast garlands of orchids, frosted foliage and icicles.

“We want it to wow people,” said Margaret Ong of Los Altos, chairwoman of the event for the second consecutive year. “And we want it to be surprising.”

Among the surprises are the changes from room to room – notably in the dining room – and the addition of a “flower corner” near the grand staircase, where visitors can create their own holiday arrangements.

“We’ll have supplies available as well as crafters and floral arrangers to offer advice,” Ong said.

The first floor of the stately house, the Filoli Cafe and the Visitors and Education Center are all lavishly decorated. However, the event is equally known for the surprising range of items for sale throughout the house.

Ong describes it as a giant boutique with “exceptional merchandise” selected by Filoli buyer Linda Fujimoto or created by Filoli volunteers. Fujimoto began her quest in January at the Atlanta gift show, followed by trips to shows in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

For the past four years, the event has had a woodland theme.

“We wanted something more elegant this year,” said Ong, who, along with Fujimoto, came up with the theme “Ice Fantasy.”

Think snow and ice and glitter and critters – namely polar bears, penguins, snowy owls, bunnies and white peacocks.

A postcard-like Christmas tree forest occupies one wall in the reception room, where the main attraction is a dazzling 16-foot tree.

Old-fashioned holiday decorations and traditional gift items can be found in the adjacent drawing room, known as the “Red Room” because of its decor.

The kitchen is now a farmers’ market, and the butler’s pantry and hallway sport a soda-fountain motif.

Expanding on the food theme, vendors with carts have set up shop in the dining room, replacing the elegantly appointed banquet table visitors have come to expect. Jerk’N Pickle, a favorite of the San Mateo Farmers’ Market, will be there, along with Buttercup Cakes of Santa Cruz, Carol Hall’s Hot Pepper Jelly Co. of Fort Bragg and Katie’s Candies of Chehalis, Wash.

“It was time to mix things up, and farmers’ markets are all the rage right now,” Fujimoto said.

There’ll even be Filoli products – seasonings, herbs, vinegars and teas – for sale at checkout in the Garden House.

Among other surprises are a French parfumerie, a men’s library and a shop (housed in the study) selling clothing, shoes and accessories. The latter even has fitting rooms.

Ong’s wow factor comes into play in the ballroom, where six 9-foot Christmas trees sparkle with lights and glitter, echoing the “Ice Fantasy” theme. Each is devoted to a snow creature – with the exception of two peacock trees. The ballroom is also the venue for performances by Bay Area choral and orchestral groups.

This is the eighth year Leslie Howard of Atherton has been chairwoman of the Ballroom Committee. In addition to overseeing the staging of merchandise, she decorates the trees.

“It takes me about a day to trim one and a half trees, but that’s after everything is unpacked,” she said.

Howard organizes the ornaments by size, putting the biggest ones on first – that is, after she chooses the tree topper. Then she tucks the smaller ornaments inside.

Hers is one of the 18 committees assembled by Ong, who has pretty much lived and breathed “Holiday Traditions” for two years. Prior to becoming chairwoman, she served on the Floral Design Committee.

“I was looking for floral classes when I discovered Filoli,” said Ong, who became hooked by Filoli itself and its many educational offerings.

To purchase “Holiday Traditions” tickets, call 364-8300, ext. 508, or visit filoli.org. Buffet lunches and evening bistro dining are available at select times during the week by advance reservation. In addition to the opening-night party, there are two children’s luncheon parties. Ticket prices vary according to event.

Easy holiday decorating tips

Filoli merchandise buyer Linda Fujimoto of Palo Alto shares ideas on how to make it feel like Christmas at home. She co-owned, with her twin Mary Schwarz, Twin Concepts, a popular Menlo Park boutique, for 14 years.

• Fill three to five glass jars with Christmas candy and place them in the kitchen – a tasty nod to the season.

• Arrange fresh greens in big pots around the house.

• Place collections of different-size candles to add a warm and festive touch.

• Make a statement by placing 10-12 battery-operated (or real) candles on a tray.

• Create your own snow globes by placing a miniature scene inside a big glass jar.

• Fill decorative glass containers with old-fashioned round glass ornaments.

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The Town Crier welcomes letters to the editor on current events pertinent to Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View. Write to us at 138 Main St., Los Altos 94022, Attn: Editor, or email editor Bruce Barton at bruceb@latc.com. Because editorial space is limited, please confine letters to no more than 200 words. Include a phone number for verification purposes. Anonymous letters will not be printed.

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