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Holidays

This Plano Man Has Decorated the Arboretum’s DeGolyer House Each Christmas for 25 Years

Known for his over-the-top displays, Michael Hamilton has turned his love of all things yuletide into a career.
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Longtime DeGolyer House decorator Michael Hamilton in 2022. Courtesy of the Dallas Arboretum

As he walked through the halls of the DeGolyer House in 2018, longtime Dallas Arboretum decorator Michael Hamilton knew the old mansion was missing something. The theme that year was “The Artistry of the Nativity.” Philanthropists Mary and Mike Terry had donated a life-sized crèche, complete with baby Jesus, wise men, and camels so tall that Hamilton had to climb a ladder to reach their heads.

Hamilton has been decorating the 21,000-square-foot house since 1998. He opted to set up the scene in the DeGolyer’s interior garden, the old Spanish Colonial property of oilman E.L. DeGolyer and wife Nell that overlooks White Rock Lake. “We’re gonna trick that sucker out,” he thought. Then, he popped into the nearby library and realized what was missing: the library needed a camel. However, Arboretum higher-ups told him “no.” 

He tried to move on but couldn’t. He turned to his sister and longtime collaborator, Julie Hamilton Gaston. “I have to have a camel,” Hamilton told her. “I have to.” So, when those higher-ups went to lunch, he and Gaston decided to move it into the space—just to see. If it looked bad, they’d put it back. No one had to know. It took the siblings seven minutes to drag the 200-pound fiberglass camel about 25 feet. “You get his butt!” they muttered to each other. “Get his head! Watch out!” 

They stuffed it by the window, and Hamilton’s business partner, Mona Crider, brought tassels and Mediterranean-looking fabrics and rugs down from their store, La Foofaraw, in Plano. “We decked that camel out like he was carrying frankincense, myrrh, gold,” Hamilton says. “It was beautiful.” And, he says, the camel was a hit. 

There are no camels, however, in this year’s decor. Themed “Christmas Traditions,” the house decorations instead feature more than 600 nutcrackers. This holiday season is Hamilton’s 25th with the Arboretum. He might just love Christmas more than Santa. He’s built his career around the holiday, selling décor in various Plano home goods shops for more than three decades. 

His love affair with the yuletide season began long ago. One of five siblings, Hamilton spent his childhood on a farm in Luling, about a 3.5-hour drive south along Interstate 35 from Dallas. He showed cattle and was active in 4-H and Future Farmers of America. But he credits his love of all-things Noel to his grandmother, whom he called a “Christmas hero.” 

“She would do Christmas like nobody’s business,” Hamilton says. The family would string popcorn and trim a cedar tree they cut from his dad’s pasture. His grandmother would cook lots of food while Christmas albums echoed through the house. His dad once brought home a red tartan-patterned couch (“I died and gone to heaven,” Hamilton says), and Hamilton got in trouble for skating around the house in the Christmas stockings. They didn’t have a ton of money. Many of the ornaments came from discount stores, but their grandmother “made it special with what she had,” says Gaston, Hamilton’s sister. 

When Hamilton was a teenager, the family moved to Victoria, south of Houston. As Hamilton and Gaston got older, their mother started letting them decorate for the holidays. They decked the house and trimmed their mom’s pipe-cleaner tree, which “looked like a scared porcupine tail,” Hamilton says. In high school, he got a job at a local plant nursery. From October to December, the nursery transformed into a “nuts-to-bolts Christmas store.” He loved it. “I’m all of 15, and I am just eating this with a spoon,” he says. 

Hamilton studied ornamental horticulture and landscape design at Texas State Technical College in Waco. He got a job as a landscape designer in Corpus Christi after graduating in 1989 and hated it. He was stuck drawing plans at a desk. “It’s hot, humid, miserable,” he says. “And we didn’t have Christmas.” 

By this time, Gaston was working at Biggerstaff Flowers in Plano. She got a new job in Dallas, and convinced Hamilton to take her old position at the flower shop. “My mom and dad were flipping out,” Hamilton says, but he loved the new gig. The store’s owner, Jim Biggerstaff, became a mentor. Hamilton learned how to make arrangements and fill a room with Christmas flora. 

After a few years, he left the flower shop. He bounced around several Plano gift and décor shops, “cutting my teeth on retail Christmas.” He sold holiday brands like Byers’ Choice and Department 56. Eventually a woman named Peggy Chappell convinced him to come work for her at Noel Christmas Store Company. They sold Christmas merchandise 365 days a year there. “She had all the good lines,” he says. “She had all the Christopher RadkoMark Roberts—she had everything.” Hamilton got to stretch his artistic skills with the products, and Chappell taught him how to run a business. 

Eventually Hamilton and interior designer Mona Crider opened their own home décor and gift store, La Foofaraw1, in Plano. Although, Hamilton notes, the November 2010 launch didn’t go quite as planned. “We opened for three hours, freaked out, and closed,” he says. With the help of Gaston, they reorganized the store and opened for good three days later. 

Throughout Hamilton’s adventures through Plano holiday retail, he’d decorate people’s houses for the holidays. He’d befriended his clients John and Kim Semyan, who were avid Christmas collectors. They had tons of Lynn West Santas, the entire Department 56 Dickens’ Village, every Radko ornament Hamilton could want, and enough Byers’ Choice caroler figurines that they could fill every shelf of the 5,500-square-foot DeGoyler library. In 1998, the Semyans lent their vast collection to the Dallas Arboretum to outfit the DeGolyer House, and asked Hamilton to help set it all up. 

That was like releasing a steamroller, Hamilton says, and he’s been decorating at the Arboretum ever since. “I wanted to be in this house. I want to just show off John and Kim’s collection,” he says. “I wanted the people in Dallas to have some place to come see Christmas.”

Hamilton volunteered his services for a few years before the Arboretum started contracting him in 2000. He works with a team of 26–28 volunteers, plus a few employees, to decorate the whole house. His sister helps, too—she’s been helping him decorate their whole lives. “We don’t even speak sometimes, we just do,” Gaston says. 


How to Deck the Halls

Decorating doesn’t have to be hard. Hamilton lists his top three pieces of advice for trimming your home. “Layers, levels, and dimension create depth. And fluff,” he says. “The rest of it? Learn how to tie a bow. if you can’t tie a bow, at least make it look like that old-fashioned ribbon candy.” 

Fluff

Fluff your artificial tree branches and your garlands. “If you don’t fluff, you can see through your trees,” he says. “You can see through everything. It’s horrible.” For novice decorators, Hamilton has a handy poem to help: “Two of those little ears go up. Two down. And two out. Two up, two, down, two out. Two up, two down, two out. All the way to the end.”

Layers

Adding layers to your décor creates dimension. You don’t want everything standing in a line, says Hamilton, “like you’re at a carnival in a duck chute.”

Elevate

Stagger your decor up and down so everything is not a single height. You can use books and soup cans to lift your stuff up, he says. The little boxes you get when replacing lights are his favorite. They hide well, Hamilton says. “That’s the best riser they’ve ever made.”


Hamilton says if all the holiday boxes are out of storage, and all the garlands and trees are pre-fluffed, he can decorate the whole mansion in just four days. “We don’t play,” he says. During the decorating, “it is a disaster” with bins and totes everywhere. But by the end, all the empty boxes are stuffed into a closet and the house is ready for visitors. 

With all the running around and decorating, Hamilton says he loses about 15 pounds each November. “I call it the glitter diet,” he says. He’ll often climb up on ladders, displays, and even the living room’s mantel to primp the décor or tie a ribbon bow, getting glitter all over him. “I’m sure I have glitter on my face,” he says. “I have glitter in my wallet. I had glitter in the bed. Glitter in your drawers when you get in the shower.” 

A Year-Round Job

Planning for the next holiday season begins each January. Every year has a theme. With a house this big, you have to have a theme, Hamilton says. “You can’t just put a postage stamp on an elephant butt,” he says. “You have to have enough stuff in your arsenal.” Throughout the year, Hamilton will attend various Christmas decoration wholesale markets, and restock on garlands, trees, and anything he might need for that year’s theme. 

Coming up with new themes—and sourcing enough stuff—each year can be difficult, but Hamilton loves the challenge. They’ve had an angel year and a Santa theme. Every three years, the theme is “nativity,” to showcase donated crèche collections from Ray Harrington and the Joe Christian. For a “Nutcracker Suite” theme, he got a street dragon from San Francisco and wrapped it around a tree as a nod to the Chinese dance in the famous ballet. In 2011, for the “12 Days of Christmas” theme, Hamilton and Gaston put two live doves in one of the trees. “They cooed, they clacked,” Hamilton says. “People couldn’t believe we had real doves in here. Mary [Brinegar] was on board with it.” The docents, however, convinced them to take the doves back. 

Although this year’s theme is technically “Christmas Traditions,” it’s really about the nutcrackers. Over the summer, Hamilton bought a Plano woman’s collection of 668 nutcracker dolls on behalf of the Arboretum. He says it took 12 car trips, 35 tote bags, and around 16 boxes to get them all to the DeGolyer House. Each arrangement of nutcrackers has a different motif. He has a display of first responder-themed dolls in the dining room, for example. And the pub room is filled with Santa nutcrackers (he supplemented this space with Santa-adorned posts, candlesticks, and juggling pins, all hand-painted by his wife, Debbie Cole). 

While Hamilton loves decorating for all holidays, there’s something special about the Christmas season. “I was raised with it,” he says. He doesn’t know how much longer he’ll keep decorating the DeGolyer House. He’ll keep going, though, as long as it’s fun. “I feel like I have it still in me.” Even when he’s 90, Hamilton jokes that he’ll still come out to the house to fluff a garland or tie a bow. Decorating, after all, is in his blood. 

And probably some glitter, too. 

Author

Catherine Wendlandt

Catherine Wendlandt

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Catherine Wendlandt is the online associate editor for D Magazine’s Living and Home and Garden blogs, where she covers all…
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