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A crafty Christmas

  • Viveca Murphy placed various holiday figurines under glass to decorate the kitchen counter at her home, which is included in this year's Sebastopol Holiday Home Tour.

    (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Viveca Murphy's house looks like the classic grandma house so many a baby boomer fondly remembers from childhood. There is the black-and-white tile floor in the kitchen, the handmade pot holders that look like doll dresses. Whitewashed cabinets are crowded with dimestore knickknacks. And everywhere, that familiar baby pink and blue.

But in Murphy's case, this "sweets shop" look that is part retro, part Shabby Chic, is not a reach back in time. Now a doting grandma herself, with a shock of snow white hair, the 62-year-old Sebastopol woman actually grew up in the Midwest and later in a modern chalet in Marin County, steeped not in the Americana of the 1930s to '50s, but in the traditions of the Old World.

When her parents emigrated from Sweden in 1949, two years before she was born, they brought not only their Scandinavian furniture but their traditional practices and yuletide rituals. As the eldest daughter, Murphy had the honor of playing Santa Lucia. Wearing a crown of candles and a white robe with a red tie, she delivered sweets to her parents on the morning of Dec. 13.

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Murphy will welcome visitors to her dollhouse, with its airy upstairs studio that is a crafter's dream space, as part of the annual Sebastopol Holiday Home Tour today.

She has upheld the traditions her entire life, both from memory and by studying an elaborate Christmas memory book her mother painstakingly put together detailing Swedish traditions and recipes.

"We had smorgasbord (a special dinner at Christmas), costumes and drinking songs," she said, the latter of which involved consumption of Glogg, a hot spiced wine.

Her father is the renowned forensic pathologist Johan Viking Hultin, who in the 1990s went on his own to a tiny village in Alaska that had been ravaged by the 1918 flu pandemic and secured permission to dig up the bodies of victims to retrieve tissue samples that might lead to a vaccine. From a woman he named Lucy, perfectly preserved in perpetual permafrost, he found a sample that allowed scientists to analyze the gene structure of the 1918 virus and ultimately led to the discovery that the virus had originated in birds and mutated to affect people.

Murphy, a crafter and antiquer who sells at crafts fairs, on Etsy and at Summer Cottage in Petaluma, has led a more home-centered life than her dad, described as the "Indiana Jones of the scientific set."

She and her late husband, Joseph Murphy, a pressman at the Marin Independent Journal, lavished all their time and modest income on their home, a simple 1964 ranch house they bought in 1977. They started work within days and never stopped.

"The dining room had veined mirrors and shingles and orange indoor-outdoor carpeting," she remembers with a shudder. "We just started painting."


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