Seasonal Showpieces Holiday collections glitter with memories

November 05, 1995|By BETH SMITH

Holiday collections. We all have them -- those special items we pull out to decorate the mantel, the dining room table, the sideboard when November and December roll around. They can be as simple as candy-cane candles or as elaborate as Fitz and Floyd porcelain pieces.

The wonderful thing about holiday collections is that, whether priceless or worth just pennies, they all come with built-in memories. Each December, our family's tree is loaded down with a collection started 23 years ago when our son was born. That first year and each year since, a new silver Christmas ball has found its way to the piney branches of our tree, compliments of a grandma and grandpa living in North Carolina.

I like the tree when it glitters and sparkles as the lights shine on the cold metal of the ornaments. But what I love are all the holiday memories that are conjured up when each ball is hung on the tree. Like Scrooge, I am treated to a quick ride through a whirlwind of Christmases past. Of course these ornaments are only on loan -- when my son leaves, so does the silver.

Just about everyone who puts up a Christmas tree owns a collection of tree ornaments. Even people who don't put up trees sometimes have them -- like artists/designers Betty Cooke and Bill Steinmetz, owners of the Store Ltd. in the Village of Cross Keys.

They have boxes and boxes of tree ornaments -- old and new, traditional and eclectic -- labeled and tucked away in their home. They even have a collection of milagros that they sometimes use for holiday decorating. These are tiny tin or silver medallionlike objects that are hung on statues of saints by Mexicans hoping for miracles.

When December arrives, Ms. Cooke and Mr. Steinmetz select from all their ornaments and hang the chosen ones in windows, place them on tables, string them in branches of pine tucked into ceramic vases, and nestle them in handcrafted baskets.

"We used to have a tree, the biggest tree we could get," says Ms. Cooke. "But we don't do a tree any more because we simply don't have the room for one in our house." Ms. Cooke and Mr. Steinmetz's home, a renovated 19th-century stable, is literally loaded with decorative items that the couple have collected over many years.

In addition to the milagros, the couple's holiday ornaments include dozens of 19th-century miniature houses, colorful figures people and animals, little fir trees with flipped-up boughs -- all hand-carved in Germany. A dear friend left Ms. Cooke and Mr. Steinmetz these tiny treasures when he died.

Papier-mache angels and wooden cherubs, normally scattered about the living-dining room, are gathered up and arranged together. From the rafters of the second floor, where they are stored, come retablos. These are boldly painted creches by the Mexican artist Villafanez. The couple also own creches made from matchboxes. Made in Peru, they contain minute handcrafted figures made from wood or potato paste.

Collections of folk-art animal sculptures are displayed everywhere, every day in the Cooke-Steinmetz home. But sheep figures covered in real sheep wool -- many made by Navajo artists -- are the couple's favorites for holiday decorating. "All animals remind me of the Nativity, but sheep especially seem to fit with the season," says Ms. Cooke.

Interior designer Greg LeVanis also associates animal collections with the holidays. But Mr. Levanis, well-known for the opulent interiors he creates for some of Baltimore's toniest homes, focuses on one particular beast -- bears, teddy bears to be exact.

"I have about 300 teddy bears in my collection," says Mr. LeVanis. "A lot of them are family bears. I have my grandmother's teddy bears, my mother's bears, my wife's bears, my brother's bears, even my kids' bears. I've bought bears while traveling and people give me bears as presents."

The bears make their appearance two or three weeks before Christmas. They are lined up on the Georgian stairway in the LeVanises' gracious entry hallway or get a seat in one of several antique children's chairs that are scattered around the house.

The one requirement for inclusion in the bear collection is personality -- the teddy bear has to have that indefinable "it" -- a quality easily spotted by Mr. LeVanis' designer eye. Price is not a prerequisite. Some of his bears are expensive antique Steiff models from Germany, but he also has a bear he bought for a dollar because it had "personality."

"I do have two favorite bears," he admits. "They both belonged to my sons when they were little kids. One is a little furry Steiff bear and the other is a lamb's wool bear that has been dragged around so much it is literally in pieces now."

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