After pouring myself a glass of cheap wine, I sat in front of my Christmas tree and cried. It was the first holiday I had ever spent alone and away from home. I wasn’t just sad, I was bone-wearingly exhausted from my overnight shift at work. It left me wondering if the relentless sacrifices I was making (the crazy hours, aggressive work load, being away from my friends and family) all to pursue my dreams of being a television journalist were even worth it.
Earlier that week, my mother had sent me a box full of goodies to cheer me. Despite dreading the approaching holiday, I carefully placed each present under the tree and waited to open them. My usual tradition was to enjoy the most amazing Christmas Eve dinner with my family. My mother always prepared her yearly feast of steak and lobster. It was a treat all of us anticipated and relished; feeding a lot of kids that kind of food was expensive and my parents saved all year to make it happen.
After we devoured our meal, each person at the table would become the center of attention as they opened one allocated gift. Naturally, everyone oohed and awed at the reveal, but the rest of the presents and overstuffed stockings were saved for a joyful Christmas morning, one that was celebrated with pastries, eggnog, Christmas carols and a huge Mexican-style dinner served later in the day. The highlight of the meal was always my mother’s famous “Green Chili Chicken Enchiladas.” It’s still one of my favorite meals to date.
It all seemed like such a distant memory as I sat in front of my Charlie Brown Christmas tree (which was actually more of a plant,) with a huge bottle of “Gallo White Zinfandel” and a Burrito Supreme (with extra sour cream) from Taco Bell. It was the only thing open when I got off of work. What’s more, it was the only thing I could afford on my paltry 12-thousand dollar a year salary.
Christmas morning was even worse. I woke-up with a hangover and a hole in my heart. My gifts seemed obsolete. I called my mother and cried into the receiver, explaining how depressed I was. I tearily confessed: “Not only can I barely function, I don’t think I could make it to work today.” I also admitted that I had stopped showering and doing my own laundry. I begged her to come to Texas (where I was living and working at the time) and help me as soon as humanly possible. What my mother did next was something I will never forget.
“Shireen, listen to me carefully,” she said. “Get out of bed and clean yourself up and do your own laundry. You’re a grown woman, for the love of God. Start taking care of yourself, because if you don’t do it, NO ONE else will.” I fell silent. She then told me that she loved me, wished me a Merry Christmas and hung up the phone. I was nothing short of stunned by her response. She had always been so supportive and kind.
I cried again, but this time I did it while putting a load of laundry in the washer. Matter of fact, I was still crying by the time I got in the shower. I have to admit, though, it felt pretty good to wash away the West Texas dust that had built up in my hair. It also felt good to mourn what Christmas had once meant to me. I knew that if I truly wanted to be a journalist, life as I had once known it was not an option.
Christmas came and went. Actually, a lot of them did. I’m not going to say it got easier, it just got different. Some years I celebrated with different co-workers, other years (if I was working on location out of town,) I celebrated with different strangers. Eventually, I married and celebrated with different families. After I divorced, I found myself alone and celebrating differently, once again.
This time, though, it wasn’t traumatizing. It was just a part of life, my life; one I had grown to appreciate, despite its ever-changing tides of differentness. As I grew more mature in my career, on occasion, I would have Christmas off, but just one day. It was never enough time to fly home and celebrate the way I had all those years ago, when I was growing up. Instead, without fully knowing I was doing it, I started creating my own traditions.
Every year I would make it a point to organize Deco Drive’s annual holiday party; we do a fun “Secret Santa” exchange and eat unhealthy amounts of fattening food. My Channel 7 co-workers, who have become my extended family, know how important it is to me. I didn’t realize how much so, until this year. Because of my recent job promotion to Deco Drive co-host, planning the party had become almost impossible and other ideas were kicked around. Chaos ensued! Almost every single member of the Deco team personally pulled me aside and asked me to “please plan the party,” because not only did they know how much I looked forward to it, frankly, they did, too.
On Christmas Eve, I always ask the people closest to me to join me for dinner. I can’t cook, but I can make a mean reservation at my favorite Miami steak & lobster house. It’s the only night of the year that means so much to me, simply because it’s based on my most cherished childhood memory. There’s just something about gathering everyone I love together and showering them with affection, gratitude and adult beverages.
Last but not least, my absolute favorite self made tradition is pulling out my beloved box of Christmas decorations; chalk full of goodies I’ve piecemeal’d together over the years. It includes my grandmother’s precious ornaments she spent a lifetime collecting and were bequeathed to me after she passed away. They’re exquisite; breathtaking, actually. In all of my worldly travels, I’ve never seen anything like them…that is, until last month.
That’s when I met Natalie Sarabella, known as the “Rock Star” of Christmas ornaments. While the title is incredibly fitting, I’m not sure it even does her justice. Natalie’s creations,”Sarabella Ornaments,” are ridiculously fabulous, over-the-top, hand-painted, one-of-a-kind, works of art. They whisper old world class and sophistication, but at the same time scream modern day glitz and glamour. The first time I held one in my hands, I was completely awe-inspired.
Natalie came to me by way of my stylist, Shari Bloch. The two met by chance in Aventura. Despite only visiting with Natalie for a few minutes Shari said: “She had me at hello.” That coincidental meeting would become my luck, although I don’t really believe in coincidences. Natalie and I met over social media, connected on the phone and made a plan to feature her fashion forward ornaments on Shireen’s Favorite Things.
The day we shot our blog pictures was a true gift and not just because she came baring her gorgeous, over-sized Sarabella balls. She brought so much light and love with her. Natalie is an exquisite creature, with a generous spirit and a great sense of humor. I warmed to her immediately; actually, everyone in my crew adored her. Having her around made us all feel as if we were already “Home for the Holidays.”
Her creations are definitely a true reflection of her own beauty, inside and out. What’s more, she painted my ornaments as if she had been my friend for years. Sure, there was the obvious: shoes, purses, dresses and hats, but she also found out about my love of the ocean and created a beautiful, Shabby Chic design featuring shells, starfish and other lovely trappings of the sea. It was official: Natalie THE PERSON was one of my favorite things.
Shireen Sandoval: You’re known as the “Rock Star” of Christmas ornaments. It’s so fitting, who bequeathed the title upon you?
Natalie Sarabella: It came from a producer of “Christmas Rush,” a holiday special I was featured in on the Travel Channel. When the producer arrived to tape the special, I answered the door and she said: “I expected a little old lady making ornaments!” Mind you, I was standing in the doorway with my 20ft tree behind me, wearing my rock ‘n’ roll attire and she exclaimed: “You look like a rock star! You’re the “Rock Star of Christmas Ornaments.” I proudly accepted my new title (laughing..) I guess I wasn’t exactly what they expected.
SS: Not all ornaments are created equal. Yours are definitely in a league of their own.
NS: The first time I walked into Bergdorf Goodman with my creation in its green velvet box, the buyer said she had never seen anything like it in all her years of buying all over the world. She dubbed it: “The Ultimate Ornament.”
SS: I totally agree!
SS: You made a handful of very stylish, fashion-forward ornaments for “Shireen’s Favorite Things.” What was your inspiration?
NS: I wanted a fashion theme. I’ve always been a “Shireen/Deco Drive fan,” but I talked to your stylist, Shari Bloch, to get some ideas. After that, it was so easy to create bright, sparkling baubles for such a sparkling soul as yourself.
SS: How long have you been creating your ornaments?
NS: My first Sarabella ornament is actually 20yrs old. We’re celebrating my companies anniversary into 2015. We’ve grown so much, we’re not just about Christmas anymore. Before the official start of my company, I always used my sister Carolyn as my canvas. I would paint her with flowers, peace signs, etc. I was such a hippie in the 60’s. My first and favorite toy as a child was called Daffy Drops. It captured my love for coloring and creating.
SS: Much like fashion, your ornaments are couture. Do you custom create as well?
NS: I love it when I’m commissioned to paint custom ornaments. I have created White House themes for former President Bill Clinton & then-First Lady, Hillary Clinton, the late Luciano Pavarotti and Jimmy Iovine (the co-founder of Interscope Records.) Jimmy and I are actually first cousins and grew up in the same house together. One year he needed something great as a corporate gift. We created my “Sarabella Santa” wearing “Beats by Dr. Dre” for Dre and a list of Jimmy’s favorite people.
SS: You have some pretty famous clients! Can you share some of those fabulous names with us?
NS: There are so many! Off the top of my head: The Kennedy & Shriver families, Celine Dion, President George H. W. Bush, Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Hanks, Jim Carrey, Joanna Carson (the wife of the late Johnny Carson; she presented one of my first ornaments to Frank & Nancy Sinatra,) Mr. & Mrs. Jerry Jones (owners of the Dallas Cowboys) and really a lot of A-listers in television, radio and film. Even former football icons like Terry Bradshaw, Michael Strahan and a lot of the owners of NFL teams. Let’s see, The Hiltons and Paris, the list goes on….
SS: What is the most unusual ornament you’ve ever created? And have you ever made one you couldn’t part with?
NS: There was a store in North Miami Beach, “Ginn’s Gifts,” and the owner, Harry, had a customer that wanted a Christmas tree fully decorated with dancing elves. It had to be the most unusual ornament I’ve made. I wish I had a picture of it. The ornament I couldn’t part with was the very first one I created. It was a 7″ gold ornament painted with poinsettias. I have it in my home in New Jersey until this day.
SS: Your ornaments aren’t just for Christmas.
NS: We have an ornament for every holiday, occasion and gift you can think of: weddings, babies, birthdays and we also have a 12-piece set that has an ornament depicting each month of the year. It comes with a twelve slot presentation box and each month following, the gift recipient receives an ornament, until the collection is complete.
SS: If you could decorate any celebrities tree, who would you choose?
NS: Well, since you’re already done…
NS: I would have to say the Kardashians. In my private collection I have a bauble-head of Kim, Lady Gaga and Wendy Williams.
SS: What do the holidays mean to you?
NS: Family, friends and fans, but most of all, paying it forward with random acts of kindness.
SS: If Santa were to visit you tonight, what would you ask him to bring you?
NS: My dad, I miss him so much, but on a lighter side, I’ll settle for a rich husband (laughing..) other than that, I’ve got it all!
SS: If I told you that you had to give all of your ornaments away, but you were allowed to keep one, which one would it be?
NS: It would be the original poinsettia. It’s the piece that started it all. It reminds me of where I started, keeps me humble. Although, Sarabella Ornaments has grown into this amazing adventure, the original one still and always will be – just me.
SS: What is your fondest holiday memory?
NS: When I was about five years old, my mother would take me to this department store in Brooklyn called A & S. They had this huge rotating Christmas tree. At the time it seemed to have the biggest ornaments I’d ever seen. It mesmerized me and stayed in my heart always. It shaped my future; I knew that Christmas needed to be that big again and that adults needed to have that feeling of awe when they held or saw an ornament. They say Christmas is for children; aren’t we all?
I know that I definitely am. I’m still just a girl from New Mexico with amazing Christmas memories of her family and one very important one of her mother. Despite missing me, longing for me and crying every Christmas without me (my dad shared that with me a few years ago,) my mother found the strength to push me away, so that I could move closer to my dreams.
Her tough love all those years ago on Christmas Day was a very generous gift. It gave me the fortitude to embrace my own life, find my own way, develop my own career and in turn, become my own woman. One with her own traditions: old and new, like a beautiful Sarabella Ornament. No matter where I go, whom I meet or what I do, I’m always “Home for the Holidays” because as Natalie says: “It’s just me” and that’s why Christmas will always be one of my favorite things.
FB: Natalie Sarabella
Blog wardrobe, shoes & accessories by www.kokopalenki.com
Styling: Shari Bloch of Koko & Palenki
photography by tod p/t4twophotography
Hair & Make-up by Odette Hernandez
Editor: Matthew Auerbach