All the critters at the Baxter place have their red bows on for the holidays. The Canada goose decoys poised in the herb garden, and the log-and-branch deer along the driveway are all bebowed. Inside, a glossy black cat named Fang lazes in the sun, a jaunty velvet bow around his neck, and Winston, an oversized, exuberant old English sheep dog bounds to greet guests, his own bow bouncing.
"If you stand still around here long enough, we'll put a bow on you, too," says Elyssa Baxter with a laugh.
Mrs. Baxter, an outgoing red-head who sells real estate, is admittedly crazy about Christmas, and each year turns her cozy historic home in White Hall into a shrine to the season -- indoors, outdoors, pets and people alike.
Each room in the enlarged 18th century log cabin (bathrooms included) has been decorated with its own theme, and in most cases its own tree, too. The front of the house is greenery- and ribbon-decked, with wreaths and lights in every window. Fang and Winnie wear their holiday finery with panache and without protest, drawing plenty of admiration and friendly petting from visitors. Mrs. Baxter and her husband Alex get into the act, too; it's a family tradition to don a fuzzy Santa hat when working outside during the month of December.
Mrs. Baxter has been making a big deal out of Christmas since her own childhood in Silver Spring.
"We had a wonderful Christmas at home," she said. "We just had one tree; I've gone a little bit farther. But I do remember changing the curtains in the house. My mother would make Christmas curtains and Christmas tablecloths."
Her parents were both handy in the crafts department, and their talents were passed on to their daughter, who for 15 1/2 years was an art teacher in the Baltimore City public schools (where she met her husband, a history teacher). Mrs. Baxter prides herself in making many of her ornaments and trimmings, as well as growing and gathering much of the raw material. The garden provides herbs and everlastings for wreaths and garlands, and evergreen, holly, pine cones and apples for drying are in ample supply on the Baxters' three-acre property. (A friend who owns a Christmas tree farm provides the rest.) As she prefers aromatic fresh greens to artificial material, she keeps extra supplies of cut greens in the fish pond near the front door, with which to replace boughs that have withered or dropped their needles.
The season begins right after Halloween, when Mrs. Baxter begins hauling boxes down from the attic and stacking them in the upstairs guest bedroom. The non-perishable decorations begin going up around Thanksgiving, and the decorating
process continues a little at a time until the halls are decked to a fare-thee-well.
The front door opens into the oldest part of the house, a log cabin built in 1804. The house was once the hub of the Baltimore County village of White Hall, Mrs. Baxter explains; people settled in the area because it was rich in game and trout streams, and the cabin was its general store and post office. It later became a residence, and in the 1860s a living room, dining room, and two upstairs bedrooms were added.
Last year, the couple added a new kitchen, bedroom and office to the house, so the entrance room is a kitchen no longer, but a comfy, low-ceilinged sitting room, furnished with an eclectic collection of mixed-period antiques and family heirlooms. The sofa is an old iron crib, piled with pillows, and a family quilt and lace throw cover a table. Country-style collectibles abound, including an assortment of antique decorated tins. The coal-fired stove adds a cozy note, too, but is not just there for nostalgic purposes; the old house, built on a thick concrete slab, has no central heating.
All of these charming elements are secondary at this time of year, though. What you notice about this room is, well, Christmas.
A bay leaf wreath hangs on the door, and a garland of dried artemisia, baby's breath and hand-gathered wild flowers, with perching white feathered doves, drapes the hearth. And you can't miss the teddy bears.
"They reside in my office in a big trunk, but then they come out for Christmas to welcome people," Mrs. Baxter says with a smile.
The tree, surrounded by a train garden, is also decked with teddy ornaments, as well as birds and red plaid bows.
Although the original part of the house is Early American rustic, the later additions might be described as elegant country Victorian, and their holiday trimmings match their decor.
Both the dining room and the living room have Asian touches, in tribute to a Baxter ancestor who was a sea captain. The dining room has an Oriental rug with a dragon motif, a dark, ornately carved Chinese cabinet and a Mandarin chair lavished with mother-of-pearl inlay. A splendid Christmas tea has been laid out on the table, and 19th century-style trimmings accentuate the room's formal dignity. The hearth area is garlanded in pine, with baby's breath, gold snowflakes, pink apples and white potted poinsettias.