Favorite Things | Walking in a winter wonderland

Ingrid Sala Santamaria explains how her magical village came to life.


INTERVIEW  NINA MAGDALEN M. DIAZ  | PHOTOGRAPHY  JONATHAN BALDONADO

Internationally acclaimed pianist Ingrid Sala Santamaria, at 76 years old, still believes in holiday magic. For her, the Yuletide season is as evergreen as a Christmas tree. While navigating the streets of Biñan, Laguna, it is impossible to miss a front-gabled house with a life-sized crèche installed in its clerestory. A smiling snowman greets visitors at the door, ushering them into a miniature Christmas village composed of over 200 pieces, including a piano house (a nod to her vocation); a rest house for the Obama family; and a mansion for Imelda Marcos.

Ms. Ingrid Sala Santamaria
Ms. Ingrid Sala Santamaria

Ms. Santamaria, who divides her time between Cebu and Manila, asked her good friend Joey Stevens, an artist and landscape designer, to bring this winter wonderland to life eight years ago. “I told Joey, I don’t think I can do it in Makati because people might think I’m crazy if I have a Christmas village all year round.” She found a small house near her weekend home in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, and turned it into a place suffused with permanent holiday cheer. Today, her private wonderland — open by appointment — spans two floors. “I think Christmas is for everyone. It’s a feeling of being able to give and share.”

How long have you been collecting Christmas trinkets?

I’ve always loved Christmas decor — angels, trees, ribbons, and  glittery balls. My first Christmas village collection was given and mounted by Cebu decorator Paul Schroth about 20 years ago in Cebu. It recreated and welded childhood fantasies of “playing house” amidst a fairy-tale-like Christmas environment, which I love.

Why dedicate an entire house to your Christmas village?

As the collection grew, there were just too many pieces for my Makati home. I didn’t like the idea of having to put them up every year because the setup is quite intricate —  every house has a light in it. It became too tedious and tiresome to do it every year.

While putting together this village, Joey Stevens and I would work straight through midnight. Joey would have a few helpers and I would sit on a big and comfortable swivel chair with a book. I would say “Okay, walang tulugan, ha?”  and then after a while I would turn my swivel chair, face the other way and pretty soon I would fall asleep. I would wake up at around 4 a.m. and I would see them seated on the floor against the wall dozing off. Everybody was just so fantastic working on this. They were all so committed and excited about the project.

Do you have a favorite house?

A lovely house with two pianos in it from Raul Sunico, who is also a pianist and a very good friend from several decades back. Since he knew I was collecting these houses, he gave me a piano house. I fell in love with it instantly.

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How did President Obama become part of your village?

When I was cleaning up, I found a house in one of the boxes and some termites had gotten into it. We brushed it off and cleaned it up. Joey suggested that we paint it white. And that led to us making it President Obama’s White Rest House. On the porch, you’ll find Obama, his wife, his two daughters, and Bo (the Obama family’s dog). We’ve created a scene where a Bösendorfer grand piano is being delivered to them. There’s also a military base and a paparazzo. We made a story about it.

Any more secrets?

I wanted to find a beautiful mansion and “assign it” as the home of Imelda Marcos. It’s an island with a log cabin for her aides; an antique shop; a flower shop; a candy shop; a theater; and a helipad. If she wants to go to the main island, she can either go by boat or by helicopter. It’s just a play of imagination. We are giving our imagination flight.

Behind the mansion, there is a mountain. And behind the mountain is my more modest home. I asked Joey to dig a tunnel between my kitchen and Mrs. Marcos’s kitchen — so that I can visit her. I have many nice memories about my friendship with Mrs. Marcos. She’s a lover of the arts and she has been most supportive not only of my music but everybody’s music, and I really admire her for that.

What’s your fondest memory of Christmas?

It’s always about being together with family. That’s really my fondest memory, especially when my husband was around. That was always nice, Christmas with family.

If you were to play a song based on your dedication to your collection, what would it be?

I have a favorite piano piece that’s called “No Other Love” by Frédéric Chopin. Christmas is really all about the little child Jesus. We should not forget that it’s His birthday that we are celebrating.