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At this home in St. Petersburg, Christmas is a welcome challenge

The Martins started decorating as soon as Halloween had passed.
"It's a hobby,'' Cathy Martin, shown here with husband Jim and dog Nora, says of the lavish holiday decorating she does every year.
"It's a hobby,'' Cathy Martin, shown here with husband Jim and dog Nora, says of the lavish holiday decorating she does every year. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 4, 2022

When Cathy and Jim Martin lived in St. Petersburg’s Old Northeast, their 100-year-old home was renowned for its beautiful holiday decorations. With its numerous fireplaces and mantels, “the house just absorbed Christmas,” she says. “This was more of a challenge.”

“This” is the much newer house in the city’s Pink Streets area, where the Martins now live. Although it doesn’t have that century-old charm, the couple have managed to make it just as festive.

Garlands of gold leaves frame the front door as art glass ornaments sparkle on a lighted 8-foot tree. In one corner of the living room stands another tree hung with stuffed felt figures made by Cathy’s mother, a fiber artist, and grandmothers. On the kitchen counter sit a jar of candy canes, a plastic Santa from her childhood and a miniature tree from the ‘40s with its original bubble lights. At Christmas, she and her sister Barbara used to keep it at the foot of their beds.

“The object is to make (the house) feel homey and comfortable and cozy,” says Cathy, assistant dean for career and professional development at Stetson University College of Law. “It makes me happy.”

While she was growing up in Pittsburgh, Christmas was such “an enormous event,” she recalls, that she wanted to stay home from school while her mother decorated. Working in department stores after college, she was captivated by the visual merchandising and the lavish holiday displays. She used her employee discount at a Horne’s store to buy a figure of boxer in red shorts, the very first ornament she acquired as an adult. It’s now on a tree in the foyer.

Over the years, the collection grew with ornaments found at flea markets and garage sales — “anything that needed to be rescued.” Skating ornaments hearken back to her time as a competitive figure skater who taught the sport while in college. Red-and-white striped ornaments came from a now defunct St. Petersburg furniture store. Her sisters, who don’t share her passion for collecting, gave her dozens of other ornaments that once decorated their childhood trees.

“Putting it out takes me back,” she says.

It was around Thanksgiving in 1996 that a friend suggested she meet Jim Martin, a lawyer who played a key role in bringing to St. Petersburg a collection of Salvador Dalí paintings that became The Dalí Museum. “On our second date,” she says, “I told him he had to go buy a Christmas tree.” They married that January, she moved into his house in the Old Northeast and in the next holiday season she started the decorating for which she became well known.

Jim has done his part. When the Saks Fifth Avenue store at International Plaza was going out of business, his wife craved an expensive white feather tree that had been used in a display. She waited for the price to drop by 90% but had to be out of town when the sale began. He attended and got the tree — just as another shopper was about to grab it.

Cathy Martin "rescued'' the vintage Christmas houses shown here from a Goodwill store and repaired them.
Cathy Martin "rescued'' the vintage Christmas houses shown here from a Goodwill store and repaired them. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

That tree, along with all of the other decorations, survived the move to the new house in 2016. The couple decorated it during the pandemic ”although for two years we were the only ones who saw it‚” Cathy says. This year, they started right after Halloween.

The first thing she unpacks is a box of little felt dolls in Christmas garb. Every year “it’s like seeing them for the first time,” she says. Her sisters found them in a closet while helping their father get ready to sell his house. The dolls, in perfect condition, apparently had been intended as a gift but were hidden away and forgotten for years.

These little felt figures has been tucked away in Cathy Martin's father's closet and forgotten about for years.
These little felt figures has been tucked away in Cathy Martin's father's closet and forgotten about for years. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The Martins’ current house is in a flood zone, but they didn’t evacuate in Hurricanes Irma or Ian. After seeing what Ian did in Southwest Florida, they likely would leave if another major storm threatened. “Losing things like this would be devastating,” Cathy says of her collection, “but not like losing your life.”

She still remembers 2004′s Hurricane Charley because it loomed shortly after she went to a Goodwill store and found a bunch of little Christmas houses made in Japan in the 1950s. Some were missing their glitter and cellophane windows so — as Charley turned away from the Tampa Bay area — she set to work “rehabbing” the houses, as she puts it.

Now, surrounded by vintage bottle brush trees, they form a cozy, snowy little village.