Finding spirit of the season in a little town of Bethlehem


December 14, 1992|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

Bethlehem -- Toy soldiers, 4 feet tall, stood along the horseshoe-shaped driveway of the Messick House. Candy cane decorations flanked the front walk. Two wooden angels stood on each side of the front door bearing a poster that read: "Let the door open wide to welcome the Christmas season inside."

The Christmas wonderland of Charles and Susan Wranik Head waited just on the other side of the brass door knocker. This weekend, a few hundred children and adults came calling for the Heads' annual open house for local residents and invited guests.

"I love all of this," said Angelita Bisceglia, 13, standing in the upstairs library, looking at a 6-foot Douglas fir adorned with birds and bird nests and items from Mrs. Head's "nature wonderland."

Angelita was not just talking about the library. She had made the tour of the 1917 Greek revival 14-room home, called the Messick House after the original owner. She was talking about everything.

Just a sampling of everything included a traditionally decorated 8-foot Douglas fir near the front door and the living room where all was purple and white and pink, and Rudolph's reindeer nose glowed as Mickey Basil played Christmas carols on a grand piano.

In the north study, a miniature Dickens Village took up two walls with lights burning in every little Christmas window.

In the dining room, a 6-foot-4-inch Santa Claus with a Waco, Texas, drawl, (Mr. Head) held forth in a corner chair. A table groaned under the weight of beef, ham, vegetables, crab dip and 60 dozen cookies -- pecan fingers, gingerbread men, decorated sugar, bourbon balls, rum balls. The cookies were made by Mrs. Head.

Going up the stairs, Angelita saw "Nutcracker" figures and poinsettias on the steps and a large nativity scene on the upper gallery. One upstairs bedroom contained the Ski Hill full of Christmas skiers; another was full of storybook characters. Throughout the house were 15 Christmas trees of varying sizes, numerous Byers collectibles dolls, animated toys and animals that moved arms or feet or heads and even one that snored -- the sleeping Santa.

The two people who put all this together have lived since July 1990 in this rural Caroline County town a few miles east of Easton best known as the place where people go for a Bethlehem postmark on Christmas cards.

Mr. Head, 57, laid-back and soft-spoken, is director of special projects for Oxy USA, a division of Occidental Petroleum Corp. A native of Milwaukee, Mrs. Head, 39, all high energy, has worked 16 years as a translator at the Italian Embassy. Their daily Washington commute is four hours; while they have no children, Mr. Head, a widower when they married, has three grown and living in Oklahoma and Texas.

Their first open house was the Christmas after they moved here.

Chris Adcock, a concierge at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington, stood in the lower gallery with Marie LaRuffa, also a concierge at the Washington hotel. Mr. Adcock was incredulous.

"I thought it was just a little Christmas open house," he said. "I never expected anything like this."

The visitors were a blend of Eastern Shore, Washington, and the United Nations (people from nine countries on Embassy Row were on the invitation list, Mrs. Head's contacts through her embassy work).

After Thanksgiving, the Heads worked nights, weekends and vacation days to get ready. The outside took two full days; Mrs. Head said inside decorating amounted to a "full week of eight-hour days."

Why do they do it?

"We don't have much time to get acquainted in the community," Mrs. Head said. "This is our way of doing something for Bethlehem."

Norma Carroll, of Easton, whose hospice tree, "Christmas is for Children," was near the front door, thought she knew another why.

"I think they enjoy the holidays like no one I've ever seen," she said.

How do they do it?

Mrs. Head, credited by her husband for marshaling the inside decorations, said her 12 years in the hotel industry, where she worked in addition to her embassy job, were helpful. In the end, everything got accomplished by "sheer panic and hustle," and help from neighbors.

One neighbor, Elwin Carroll, a Bethlehem carpenter, dropped by to build the table for the Dickens Village and, like Eldon, the perpetual painter on "Murphy Brown," more or less stayed, or at least came back every time he was needed.

Mr. Carroll came Saturday as a guest, a smiling man in grayish beard, jeans, flannel shirt, jacket and a Maryland Terrapins cap.

Susan Head, in a 1916 blouse and black gabardine floor-length skirt, greeted people, putting name tags on the children. Her mother, Elaine Wranik, was the upstairs hostess. Mr. Head sat white-bearded, red-suited and ready for all comers and, thanks to the name tags, was able to greet by name Millie and Cooper and Alex and Luca and any other youngster.

Jennifer Stevens of Preston brought Cooper, 3, and Kyle, 4, and her camera. Cooper immediately crawled into Mr. Head's lap but Kyle decided he wasn't ready yet.

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