He has thought of everything. The ring. The fireside table at the Milton Inn. The tokens of his affection, including slinky, sapphire-blue lingerie. But Bob (as we'll call him so as not to spoil the surprise) figures his crowning moment will come Christmas Eve when his girlfriend opens a certain brightly wrapped box and finds several smaller boxes, each featuring a gift tag with one hand-written word.
Together, the tags spell out something he's been too afraid to say: I-LOVE-YOU-WILL-YOU-MARRY-ME?
And if all goes well on Dec. 24 -- exactly a year after they began dating -- he and his girlfriend will be engaged.
It better work, he says. Bob, after all, has spent the last six months planning Operation Christmas Proposal.
If he succeeds, he'll be the third of his siblings to get engaged around Christmas. "It's a family tradition," says Bob, 24, who lives in Whiteford. "It enhances the holiday."
This couple is among those who turn December into one of the most popular months for engagements, perhaps second only to valentine-filled February. The spirit of gift-giving, the festivity of the season and the closeness of relatives often bring Santa and Cupid together, prompting men to get on bended knee and pop the question.
"There is a real surge of engagements in December," says Cele Lalli, editor in chief of Modern Bride. "It's a time of celebration and sharing. There's the religious element, which can bring a certain solemnity to the occasion. And families are often together. That can be the most important reason, because it means they can share the happiness and all look forward to the new year and many years together."
Jewelers and bridal shops attest to the trend. At Zales, 25 percent of all engagements rings are sold in December, according to Seth Shipley, manager of the Towson Town Center store. "It's nothing to sell between two and five rings a day," he boasts.
At bridal shops, the same is true. "As soon as girls have that ring, they're in here," explains Mary Gamberdella, president and owner of Gamberdella's Salon for Brides in Towson. "Sometimes I think they put them in a corral and let them lose in January. It's our biggest sales month of the year."
In the past, Pollyann Howell would have mentioned a 10-speed bike or white teddy bear as her most cherished holiday gifts. That is, until Dec. 23, 1989, when amid twinkling lights and fragrant Christmas trees, her boyfriend presented her with a sapphire and diamond engagement ring.
"She cried," recalls Jerry, 32, who became her husband six months ago. "But you know how girls are."
The joy continued the next day at a family party when the couple formally announced their engagement. Ms. Howell got to show her ring to relatives who were visiting from Wisconsin, Salisbury and Annapolis.
The event made that Christmas one she'll never forget, she says. For Patti Durmowicz, becoming engaged on Christmas Eve was a complete surprise, but she couldn't have selected a more romantic time. "The holiday is special," says the 26-year-old nurse who lives in Timonium. "There's a different atmosphere. People tend to be more generous, not as uptight. And there are lights and candles. It all makes you feel at ease and warm."
This time of year also often brings out the creativity in men. Rings may be hung on trees as ornaments, wrapped and left under the tree, or presented by boyfriends disguised as Jolly Old Nick.
One daring man even placed an engagement ring in a fruitcake, recalls Robert Smyth Jr., vice president and gemologist at the Albert S. Smyth Co. in Timonium. The woman began yelling, outraged to think this was her only Christmas gift.
"The guy was in hot water for about an hour after she opened the package," he says. But when her boyfriend instructed her to start cutting slices and the fourth slice yielded a diamond ring, he was quickly forgiven.
Yet yuletide proposals are not for everyone. Some women say they would feel cheated if boyfriends let an engagement ring double as a Christmas or Hanukkah gift.
When Ruggero Ascenzi asked his girlfriend to be his wife, he distinctly chose not to do it in December. "I didn't want it to be around Christmas," says the 24-year-old Overlea hair stylist, who got engaged last month. "I didn't want it to blend in with the holidays. I wanted it to be our day."
And while selecting a ring usually involves lots of "cooing and oohing and aahing," sometimes even the most well-intentioned proposal can go awry, says Mr. Smyth.
A month ago, a couple with plans to get engaged during the holidays ran into trouble while trying to select the perfect ring. The woman wanted a big diamond; the man wanted something small. Neither would budge. After creating a scene, they stormed out of the store.
"They said they'd get back to me," Mr. Smyth says, "but the next day the guy called and said the engagement was off."