Nena Tantoco welcomes
guests at the main entryway
of Villa Marina at Sta. Elena,
adorned with awreath made
of real and artificial leaves,
pine needles and red
Christmas balls. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/STA ELENA
With her kids all grown and having their own families, it has been harder each year to gather Marina “Nena” Vargas Tantoco’s entire brood under one roof at Christmas.
But this hasn’t stopped the mother of seven from preparing her weekend home for the holidays, supervising the decorating of the vast, contemporary bahay-na-bato, and hanging Christmas stockings on stairwells, each embroidered with the names of her family members.
There’s husband Bienvenido “Rico” Tantoco Jr., children Donnie, Joel, Robbie, Gippy, Katrina, Paolo and Bea; their spouses; 15 grandkids ages 1 to 27; and her nonagenarian mom Mameng Vargas, and father-in-law, Rustan’s founder and former ambassador Bienvenido Tantoco Sr.
Tantoco is easily one of the finest homemakers in the country. She’s known for the warmth of her home, the personal stamp she leaves on it, and her sumptuous, home-cooked meals.
“If Rico’s passion is this golf course, family and Christmas are mine,” said Nena, as she walked Lifestyle through the three adjoining wings of her home, Villa Marina, at Sta. Elena Golf and Country Estates in Sta. Rosa, Laguna.
She fills her grandkids’ stockings with little presents in time for their visit, “but I take it away if they don’t come,” she whispered with a grin. “That means they didn’t visit lola,” she added.
Nena’s husband of 52 years, Rico, founded Sta. Elena Golf and Country Estates 20 odd years ago, where the couple built their sprawling, 10-bedroom family home, designed by architect Emmanuel Miñana, and was completed in 2014.
Her kids won’t be home for Christmas this year, but it hasn’t dampened the holiday spirit at Villa Marina, as the mistress of the house is painstakingly making sure that everything is in place for when her entire family could finally gather for their post-holiday meal next month. Christmas carols can be heard playing throughout the house.
With their busy schedules, they have agreed to hold the get-together in mid-January instead, a date chosen by youngest daughter, Bea Reyes, who’s set to give birth to her second child next month.
Nena has it all worked out. She has tasked daughters Bea and Katrina Lobregat to help plan the party, to be held in their lanai and the lawn behind the main house.
“I want to have a sit-down meal this time, since we always do a casual thing. I want even the small ones to eat with us. I hope it won’t rain.” She has asked them all to come dressed in white.
She even has the menu planned out: Apart from the holiday fare like lechon, paella and jamon, she says there will be some steamed fish and pesang manok for eldest son Donnie; crabs for Donnie’s wife, Crickette; “something else for Dina,” youngest son Paolo’s wife, as “she can’t have anything with shrimps…”
This mom makes sure everyone has his/her comfort food at the dinner table, just like her own mother prepared for her and her siblings in Negros whenever they came home for the holidays.
While Rico and Nena live in Makati, it’s at Villa Marina where they spend most of their weekends and free time. It’s the couple’s “happy place,” where they could leave and forget the hustle and bustle of the city, amid the fairways and the trees planted by the man of the house, an avid golfer and arborist.
Nena’s creativity and attention to detail is evident everywhere. Even with the help of a household staff of 20, decorating the property is a daunting task, with its expanse that consists of the main house and her children’s quarters on opposite ends, linked at the middle by a common area, with the family and entertainment rooms on the second level.
But it all comes natural for Nena, whose creative eye was first spotted by her late mother-in-law, Gliceria (or Glecy, who founded Rustan’s with husband Benny), and gave her a job at the Rustan’s Flower Shop. She would later become the luxury department store’s visual merchandiser.
“It was my mother-in-law who turned my skills into retail. We used to do Citem and export before China [manufacturing] came along. But I think I got my creativity from my mom,” she said.
“Whenever we went home for Christmas to our sugar farm in La Castellana, she had this real tree, twigs and all, as Christmas tree. She decorated it with colored bulbs. There was no electricity then, so we used a (power) generator.”
For Villa Marina, Nena kept her décor nature-inspired, blending with the home’s surroundings. Potted poinsettia plants surround the koi ponds at the main house’s entryway and the areas around the pool in the back.
The doors of the main wings are adorned with identical wreaths, made of real and artificial leaves, pine needles and red Christmas balls.
She has wreaths of varied materials—a mix of natural and artificial leaves, berries, red flowers, even cotton flowers—adorning the rest of the house, propped on tables and against chalkboards bearing inspirational and spiritual quotes. “I just want to show that wreaths are not just for doors,” she said.
Nena, who runs a little handicrafts workshop at Villa Marina to give livelihood to the community residents, uses mostly handmade items made by Filipino artisans and exporters around her home.
There are Nativity sets of stuffed dolls, and another made of carved driftwood sits at the foyer.
While there’s no chapel in her home, the spiritual Nena has little altars throughout the house, bedecked in green and red ornaments for the season.
Gold and red
A 12-ft-tall tree trimmed with gold and red ornaments is the centerpiece of the entertainment room, the Christmas colors echoed by the table and countertop knickknacks.
“You should see this house at night,” Nena said, as she surveyed her abode, made largely of wood, the walls wrapped in glass with louvered shutters. The rooms have gorgeous views of the fairways, the strategically planted full-grown trees in the back adorned with white parol. “When the lights are on, it’s so beautiful.”
There’s a constant stream of guests coming and going at Villa Marina, and the gracious hostess has only one rule: Nobody leaves hungry, including relatives of her staff, who, on Lifestyle’s visit, were all dressed in festive red shirts and reindeer antlers.
Her home runs like a well-oiled machine, warm and homey but spic and span.
Nena’s kids want for nothing, so this year, she thought of what best she could give them for Christmas: She resumed her old tradition of decorating her children’s respective homes for the holidays.
“They don’t need anything. That’s my gift to them,” she said.