Holiday Hale

Festive trimmings fill the home of Mary Philpotts McGrath during this time of year —an enchanting combination of seasonal finds and personal touches.

Enter the Nu‘uanu home of Mary Philpotts McGrath, and immediately sense the richness and the history belonging to the residence and the treasures held inside. Enter her home at Christmastime, and experience holiday décor defined by enchantment and wonder.

It was 20 years ago that Mary found the century-old home, designed by classically trained architect Hart Wood. The dwelling features an open living area and ohi‘a flooring, and breezes blow through it, bringing feelings of island vitality with them. When the holiday season arrives, she ventures outside and brings in cuttings from the garden—leaves from the magnolia tree and hydrangea blooms that she then sprays gold.

The interiors maven explains, “Almost any foliage we grow here can be ornamental.”

Mary situates the gilded leaves and flowers all around the living and dining areas. Then, she embellishes each spot with what she calls “found” items.

Sometimes, she suggests, the best place to find things might be a forgotten drawer. Mary drapes her arrangements in beads to add sparkle to each spot.


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“Rummage around, and look for anything decorative, even if it’s not necessarily meant for Christmas.”

The traditional greens and reds of the holiday season do have their place in Mary’s décor, but the color scheme doesn’t end there. In fact, every year, her Christmas tree stands a celebration of the entire color wheel. With the same gilded leaves as accents, her tree is extraordinary, although it did have a rather ordinary inception.

The story Mary tells is that, one winter, she was feeling particularly penitent about purchasing a cut tree each year and, then, placing it on the curbside after its holiday usefulness elapsed. Family member and co-author Kaui Philpotts encouraged her to move to an artificial tree. Mary did.

She drove to the store, found the height she needed and brought the tree home. She enlisted the help of her gardener to put the tree together for the first time. And, with the final tweaks of the branches and the straightening of the crown, it was time to plug it in and illuminate the lights.

She recalls eagerly standing across the living room and then exclaiming, “Oh no! The lights are colored!”

After years of white, twinkling lights, the colored lights were a shock. But, she explains, “I wasn’t about to disassemble the entire tree and haul it back to the store.” So she decided to embrace and adapt.

Not long before the tree transition, Mary received a box of items for her premier design store, Place. But the trinkets had not been packed in the usual peanuts and bubble wrap. Instead, the packing material was unlike anything she had ever seen. It was silky and flowy and, best of all, each strip of packing fabric was brilliantly hued—a rainbow of neons. She brought the box home and proceeded to work its colorful contents into the tree’s trimmings. The result is a magnificent Christmas tree that stands as one of two highlights within Mary’s holiday home décor.

Across the room, upon the formal dining room table, another tree can be found—a glorious wire Christmas tree. Upon its twirling and spiraling branches hangs an assortment of ornaments, many of which were given to Mary as gifts.

Gaze at the tree and it’s as if you’re looking through an I Spy book: a children’s book series onset in the ’90s. I Spy Christmas, specifically, was published in 1992, and features pages of photographs, along with riddles asking curious readers to find a “yellow bow,” “a magnet,” “an almond” …

Mary’s tree is just like that—a riddle of fun and a celebration of the holidays, inviting guests to peer into its branches and find a peacock, a monkey holding a green ball, a golden moon …

“When it comes to holiday decorating,” Philpotts says, “my message is that you can find things anywhere. Take a look all around you and you’ll see things that you can incorporate with a playful ease. It should be fun. Like a child, just look around and you’ll find all sorts of treasures to decorate your home for the holidays.”

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