CRAZY ABOUT CHRISTMAS Yuletide enthusiast decks halls--and everything else

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

This room's tree is a cedar, with airy, icy-looking ornaments, and some feminine hearts-and-flowers accents. Cedars are no longer popular, because their branches are both delicate and prickly, but Mrs. Baxter tries to include one every year, she says, because the cedar was the first Christmas tree.

The living room is warmer and less formal, but the seafaring Baxter's influence can be seen here as well. The trim and chintz sofas are Chinese red, and there are embroidered dragon pillows on the sofas, a Satsumi vase in the corner and a West African silk hanging, embroidered with 14-karat gold thread, on the wall. But there are many playful touches as well, including a collection of wind-up toys (they add one a year, at Christmas), and a life-sized blond mannequin nicknamed Zelda, whom Mrs. Baxter dresses up to suit the season.

This room is home to a plump evergreen decorated with what appears to be hundreds of homemade and heirloom ornaments. Among the older pieces are wooden sailors dating to World War II, and much older delicate glass globes in the shape of fruit.

"It's quite a collection," she admits. "I guess one year I should count how many ornaments I have on this tree. . . . Luckily I have a hefty attic."

Under the tree is a creche made by her father, with figurines hand-painted by her mother. Mrs. Baxter works a religious tableau into each room, as a reminder of "the reason for the

season."

The tree in the new kitchen is decorated with nosegays of dried flowers from the garden, pink and ivory silk bows, and white candles. (The tree is a flameproof artificial one, as the Baxters like to light the candles on Christmas Eve.) The downstairs guest bedroom is also prettily Victorian, decked with all-white ornaments, most of them crocheted by an 85-year-old friend of the family. There are no full-size trees in the upstairs rooms, although the king-sized master bed has been given a canopy of pine boughs and blue bows. And Charlotte, Alex Baxter's pet tarantula, has her own miniature tree.

When the holidays are over, the decorations will inevitably go back to their home in the attic, and the greens and herbs will be tossed in the woods for the wildlife, recycled in the kitchen or made into potpourri.

But don't think that the house is just going to return to normal until next winter. When one holiday is over, another is coming up -- and Elyssa Baxter decorates for all of them. Springtime visitors will get a chance to see Winston the sheep dog with a Victorian lace bow. And what could be more appropriate for Halloween than orange ribbons for the black cat Fang?

Candlelight tour at Baxters'

For several years now, Alex and Elyssa Baxter have opened their house for Christmastime tours for friends, the public and special groups. (This year they will entertain residents of the nursing home where Mrs. Baxter's mother now lives.) "The people who came here [recently] said, 'If we weren't in the spirit before, we certainly are now,' " Mrs. Baxter relates.

The public is invited to a candlelight tour of the Baxters' White Hall home from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. next Sunday (Dec. 30). The $20 admission fee will include the tour, conducted by Baltimore tour guide Zippy Larson, a buffet and beverages. Tickets must be purchased in advance; no tickets will be sold at the door. For information or reservations, call Ms. Larson, 764-8067.

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