You can imagine his delight when he discovered Colonial Williamsburg, where all the holiday decorations come from nature.
All these years later, the interior designer and his wife Maureen make regular Christmas pilgrimages to Williamsburg, Va., which has become the inspiration for his holiday decorating.
"It is homey. It is real. The greens, the fruit. These are gifts from the earth," said Zealor from the kitchen of his Forest Hills townhouse in Harford County, where he and his wife downsized in 2003.
The two Christmas trees are artificial, all the better to display hundreds of ornaments to their best advantage. And if you look closely, you will see that some of the swags, garlands and wreaths are artificial, too. That's because Zealor shops for the best faux greens he can find and then builds on them, adding fresh greens and fresh fruit.
He does this for clients as well, arriving with an armload of nursery cuttings and a grocery bag of produce to kick their decorations up a notch.
"But it is hard to do for clients because it is so last minute," said Zealor, who might wait until Christmas Eve to finish his own decorating. "The fruits can last a while, but the magnolia leaves curl and the greens start dropping needles."
The solution for Zealor? His wife, who teaches third grade in Baltimore County, is an avid cook and baker. She will "shop" from his decorations, pulling the fading fruit and vegetables and using them in the kitchen.
"You are going to make a couple of trips to the grocery store," said Zealor, who likes to add fresh cranberries to the sconces and vases holding candles. "But the smell is just wonderful."
In the dining room, which is a miraculously converted garage, a cherry table is the center for holiday dinners. Zealor also likes the sparkle that the glitter on fake fruit adds when the room is lit with candles in the evening.
In the living room the tree is the centerpiece, heavily laden with an eclectic mix of antique German glass ornaments from previous generations and the latest kitschy ornament from Hampden. But you will find a holiday touch everywhere you look in this expanded room, remodeled to include what had been a small dining room. It is now spacious enough for family gatherings, which include grown children, grandchildren, siblings and cousins.
Zealor likes to combine greens of various textures — boxwood, Fraser fir and soft pine — and nandina berries. All of it comes from his yard and garden, where he has planted shrubbery he can harvest for the holidays, refreshing his decorations at will. You can find a little of each at the base of a candle or near a crystal clock.
Despite his fondness for the Williamsburg holiday look, Zealor likes to change things up.
"You can stick to a theme all over the place, but it gets a little boring," he said. That's one reason why the basement family room has an Art Deco holiday feel to it, with lots of glitter and glass, and a tree that displays the ornaments his children, Josh and Tara, made as kids "and didn't want to take with them," said Zealor, laughing.
Outdoors, Zealor has hung a wreath of mixed greens that he purchased at Home Depot. He added apples and lemons with floral wire, running it through the fruit and around the wreath, twisting the wire to secure the fruit.
The porch and the large wreath on the dining room window are lit with floodlights, which Zealor finds more interesting, and sophisticated, than strings of tiny lights running everywhere.
You will find faux garland around the door, too, but he has added berries and magnolia leaves. The twin grapevine topiaries by the walk are from Target. The red forsythia (fake, of course) in the vase on the landing is from Pier 1. His best faux greenery pieces are from Natural Decorations Inc. (ndi.com), and he always finds something he likes at Greenspring Nursery and Gifthouse on Jarrettsville Road.
Zealor shops everywhere all year long, looking for just the right item to create a collection or add to one, such as his group of blue Eldreth pottery Santas found in Strasburg, Pa., another of his favorite places to look for decorations.
An art major in college who began a graphic design firm, Zealor turned to interior design when the world of two dimensions no longer excited him.
"It is the same, really," he said. "Colors, textures and the elements of design. Now it is in a room instead of on a page."
The Zealors' Williamsburg Christmas takes two days to roll out, and there are regular trips to the grocery store until the day after New Year's. when Maureen Zealor insists that it all be packed away until next year.
Between now and then? The Zealors will be making a trip to, of course, Colonial Williamsburg.
Bob Zealor calls these his "lucky 7" Christmas decorating tips:
Start with a clean slate. Pack away all your everyday accessories before you decorate. Don't just add Christmas items. This will make your holiday collections stand out.
Go fresh. Use fresh greens and fruits wherever possible. It always looks and smells better. Replace them throughout the season when necessary.
Faux is fine. But you should invest in the best quality when using faux greens. Use them as your base and add to them.
Work your contacts. Develop a relationship with a florist or supplier you trust. Repeat customers often guarantee themselves the freshest flowers and greens.
Add old and new. Mix old and sentimental ornaments with new finds. However, know when to retire an ornament that is showing its age.
Stay true to you. Your holiday decorations should reflect your tastes and traditions, just as your home does for other occasions.
Grocery shop. Don't forget the grocery store when decorating. Fresh fruits and vegetables make beautiful centerpieces or mantel decorations. An artichoke, with fruit and Christmas greens, can be a fun substitute for a pine cone.