When Jean Obert moved into her new house almost 10 years ago with her husband, Don, she thought it was perfect in every way.
The house was spacious, had an open floor plan and a dramatic sweeping staircase in the entryway. It was a “lock-and-go” house, she says, meaning that, because there was a little yard to care for and the neighborhood was secure, the travel-loving couple could leave town whenever they wanted with peace of mind.
But then the holidays came, and Jean, whom some might call enthusiastically festive, set up her tree and her many decorations. Then, with one flip of the switch – poof – she blew all the circuits in the house. The services of an electrician were required to set things right and rewire the house.
Obert has almost always been a dedicated holiday decorator. Visit her home in early-November, and you can already see that she’s geared up for the season. The front door is festooned with pumpkins, gourds and myriad other Halloween decorations. The dining room table is already formally – and attractively – set for Thanksgiving dinner. In fact, pretty much everywhere, one sees signs of a household eagerly embracing the season.
Is Obert ever accused of being over the top?
“Oh, of course!” she says with a laugh. “My husband always says he could’ve married a nice Jewish girl.”
Holidays aren’t her only fascination, however. Obert antiques with friends “at least three times a month” and has been collecting mostly Victorian-era furnishings for 35 years. Her home is comfortable and beautifully decorated, but also has an almost museum-like intrigue.
Take the office, for example. There’s an old lawyer’s desk with filing cabinets containing the original drawer markers: deeds, abstracts, bills. When she bought it, documents dating from 1890-1923 were still in it. There’s also an antique tobacco case with its original storage jar, lock and key (tobacco used to be quite expensive). When Obert had it cleaned, decades of pipe smoke residue was removed.
She also has a penchant for the personal items of Victorian ladies. A smattering of purple hatpins and hair receivers are whimsically displayed in the powder room. About 25 vanity mirrors adorn the master bath. There’s even an antique bidet that she used as a plant stand.
One of her most fascinating items is a funeral fan, made shortly after electricity was discovered to keep flies away from the bodies of the dead. The fan and the flickering lights that flank it still work; when she turns it on, it’s difficult not to imagine the morbidity of its past.
Upstairs, Obert displays her collection of antique toys, including dozens of Victorian dolls, all of which she brings downstairs during the holidays as part of her decorating ritual. In fact, most of her holiday touches contain a bit of Victorian flair.
And about all that Christmastime decorating…what drives it, one might ask? Well, Obert admits that she gets part of it from her mother, whom she says could “throw a party at the drop of a hat.” But it’s also the grandmother in her.
“I always wanted the holidays to be bigger than life for my grandchildren,” she says. “I wanted it to be just a magnificent celebration.
“Sometimes, I think I’m Mrs. Claus,” she continues with a laugh. “I just love Christmas.”
Her friends must think so, too. Each year, she throws a ladies-only Holiday Happy Hour celebration for 250 friends at her house. Though she tackles much of the decorating and preparation herself, she has some connections that help. Just more than a year ago, she retired from the counseling office at West Junior High, and still hires students to help her put out ornaments.
Even with help, however, she admits it’s a ton of work.
“I used to sleep about four or five hours per night,” she says. “I’m so much more rested now that I’m retired.”
Will she ever pull a bah humbug? Not likely.
“It’s my gift to my friends, to entertain them,” she says of the celebration and the decorating. “Some of my friends say they just never feel like the holiday season has really started until they come to my party.”