by Liza Roberts
photographs by Carla and Kristopher Williams
Christmas time at Donna and Kirk Preiss’s house is a fairy tale – an enchanting story with 1,500 characters. Each is an ornament on one of the Preiss’s 13 Christmas trees, and each has a story of its own.
Collected in far-flung spots and places close to home, most of these decorations are not ornaments at all. In the eyes of Donna Preiss, though, anything beautiful, interesting, or hand-made is perfect for the job. Together the collection forms a travelogue, diary, and self-portrait in three dimensions.
There are prayer wheels from the mountains of Kathmandu and painted eggs from Prague. There are wintery scenes from the White House and handmade kids’ creations. There are rickshaws from the Cu Chi tunnels under Ho Chi Minh City and toys from Angor Wat. There are blown glass balls from Murano and jewelry made by Masai. Camels from Udaipur hang next to children’s hats from Chiang Mai. Chilean dolls and Tibetan bells and Vietnamese lanterns make colorful neighbors. One tree is home to a flock of angels from European churches. Two others are bedecked with yard art collected in the mountains of North Carolina, Colorado, and Austin, Texas.
Put together in all of its sparkling, festive glory, the collection and the trees that hold it represents an annual moment of fantasy and celebration for a woman who spends most of the rest of the year running and growing a major company. “My whole life has been very efficient,” says Donna Preiss, founder and chief executive of Raleigh-based The Preiss Company, the fourth-largest privately held student housing provider in the country. “I’m ambitious, I work hard. This is the time of year that I get to try to do something just for fun…to celebrate the season with friends.”
It’s a tradition that lives on yearlong as she collects the objects on her travels that will become ornaments on her trees. The trees themselves began to multiply several years ago when there wasn’t room on the branches for all of the treasures the Preisses had collected. This year alone the couple has added two trees to last year’s 11.
It’s not just the Preiss’s extensive travels that are represented. There are ornaments made by their children when they were little, some the couple had on their family trees growing up, and countless ornaments they’ve been given by friends.
Helping to keep the many-pieced extravaganza organized, pulled together, and stylish is Donna Preiss’s able sister-in-law Susan Pardue, an interior designer and event planner. “She has an ability to take simple things and make them look really special,” Preiss says. She’s grateful for the help with a project that means a good deal to her and is constantly growing: “When you decide you’re using trees as canvases of your life, it mushrooms very quickly.”