Home for the Holidays
By Shannon Severson | Photography by Michael Woodall
For one Arizona family, Christmas is a time to celebrate the memories and traditions of their Midwestern childhoods.
There may not be a Christmas morning blanket of snow on the ground outside the Scottsdale abode of interior designer Mary Meinz, but heartfelt personal touches scattered throughout the home transport family and friends to the warmth and hospitality of a Midwestern holiday.
“Now that we live in Arizona, we have learned to decorate our cacti instead of making snowmen,” says Mary with a smile.
As a Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner, Mary has spent her career creating environments that reflect what her clients love. In her own house, her most deeply treasured possessions hold memories of family members, dear friends, her faith and the years she and her husband, Al, spent growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin, respectively. Mary has successfully incorporated the traditions of her Midwestern upbringing into the couple’s distinctively Southwest-style decor.
“We were born and raised in the north, and during the holidays, we often cut down our own Christmas trees,” says Mary. “When we moved here 15 years ago, we learned that, in the interest of safety, a real tree was not the best option. As it turned out, it didn’t really matter so much whether it’s real or not. It’s what we put on it that’s important.”
Every year, there are two faux trees in the home brimming with memories: a large one in the living room and a tall, narrow one in the kitchen. Each has a distinctive personality, with ornaments, lights and decor that celebrate Christmases past and present.
The kitchen tree is the grandchildren’s tree. Mary and her two grandsons, Brody and Henry, decorate it together each year with Mary’s childhood ornaments, as well as handmade ones. Many were gifts to the Meinzes’ two children, Elizabeth and Bradley, from Mary’s Aunt Stella or Al’s mother. The felt ornaments, often adorned with tiny hand-sewn sequins are sweet reminders of their childhood years in Wisconsin. Ornaments that Mary and her husband have exchanged annually over their 51 years of marriage hang here, representing individual moments in time. Santa on a motorcycle celebrates the year Al got his own Harley, a life-preserver emblazoned with “Wet ’N’ Wild” commemorates happy times on the couple’s boat, and several canine-themed ornaments represent the family’s beloved Westie, Mandy. More homemade ornaments hang on a nearby pair of moose antlers that Al hauled home from a Canadian fishing trip.
The formal living room tree is covered in twinkling lights and positioned in front of the room’s broad wall of windows that overlooks the landscaped yard. There’s more orange than red and green on this tree, evidence of Mary’s love for the color. Since moving to Arizona, the designer has transformed the tree’s decor with an organic bent. Sprays of orange flowers are interspersed with feathers, birch balls, green twigs that extend and droop from the branches, pine cones and shimmering orange glass globes, and several glass ornaments that Mary has had since she was a child.
I’m a lover of tradition, but the artist in me has to add to and switch things up each year.”
—MARY MEINZ, homeowner and interior designer
Every year, she adds something new, such as the 50 miniature adobe Mission-style church ornaments that represent the importance of the family’s faith. Scrolls tied with twine among the branches are from the grandchildren’s various performances that the couple have attended over the years. Mary also added old photos, which serve as touchstones of family history and a great way to share stories of loved ones with new generations.
“When I was a little girl, my dad and I would traditionally top our Christmas tree with the same angel every year,” says Mary. “I still have that angel, and it still sits atop our family tree all these years later.”
A 20-piece white ceramic nativity set sits beneath the living room tree. Mary handmade the arrangement in 1969 while Al was in the Army during the Vietnam War. She and her grandchildren still use his old army blankets, as well as crumpled up paper and fake snow, for its backdrop.
There’s also something special about the bright red cardinals that perch on the branches of both trees.
“In our family, when we see a cardinal, a Midwest bird that flies only in pairs, we know it is a visit from our loved ones who have gone before us,” Mary explains. “My parents, my in-laws, our dear friends Terri and John—they’re letting us know they are safe and happy. Those visits mean the world to us.”
The Meinzes’ dedication to family and friends fills their holiday calendar with parties, baking and celebratory dinners at the long, wooden dining table carved from remnants of a 120 year-old Vermont bridge. It’s set with special red china that Mary bought in 1975 for Christmas celebrations, though centerpieces change from year to year. “I’m a lover of tradition, but the artist in me has to add to and switch things up each year,” she adds. “We are a creative family, so that tradition extends to the food, the decor, the gifts and the wrapping. We wrap our gifts like we do our arms around each other—elaborately, creatively and with love. Of late, Al has been the most wonderful elf. He wraps and I decorate the packages.”
Her table, just like her home, is a place to gather, to relive old memories and to create new ones. As much as the world may change, there are precious things that ground a family, and the joy of Christmas is a big part of what connects the Meinz family, across the miles and across generations.
“Christmas isn’t a matter of where you live,” says Meinz. “What’s really important—and what will stay in your memories for years to come—is who you are celebrating it with.”
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Christmas isn’t a matter of where you live. What’s really important is who you are celebrating it with.”
—MARY MEINZ, homeowner and interior designer