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Christmas of old: Strasburg glows in light of annual holiday home tour

Kathleen Harmon lights a candle
Kathleen Harmon lights a candle on a reproduction goose-feather Christmas tree in the living room of her home on East Brown Street in Strasburg. The tree features antique ornaments she has collected over the years. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Antique Santas stand
Antique Santas stand on the living room fireplace mantel. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

The dining room decorated
The dining room, decorated for Christmas, includes Mrs. Harmon's oil lamp collection and antique Dresdens on a tree. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

a reproduction goose-feather tree holds antique German-style ornaments
At left, a reproduction goose-feather tree holds antique German-style ornaments in the guest room upstairs. A traditional tree offers a "garden" of Christmas decorations underneath. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Antique Santas rest on the fireplace mantle
Antique Santas rest on the fireplace mantle inside the Harmon home on Brown Street in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Russian Santas rest
Russian Santas rest on an upstairs end table inside the Harmon home. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

Italian ornaments hang
Italian ornaments hang from a traditional tree inside the Harmon home on East Brown Street in Strasburg. Rich Cooley/Daily (Buy photo)

By Josette Keelor - jkeelor@nvdaily.com

STRASBURG -- The ghosts of Christmas past are alive and well in the Harmons' home. They lurk among the antique dime-store holiday boxes under the reproduction goose-feather Christmas trees; they are hiding within the old-fashioned candy tins. They even appear in the faces of the "old Christmas" Santas who peer down from atop cabinets and shelves and off the living room mantel.

Old Christmas is something that Kathleen Harmon holds very near and dear to her heart, and is exactly what she plans to share with her guests this holiday season when they arrive on Saturday to tour the 111-year-old house on East Brown Street in Strasburg.

"The boxes are from the 1930s, the 1940s," Harmon says, pointing out highlights of the upcoming tour on a recent chilly fall afternoon. Under the tree in the living room sits a collection of old empty boxes decorated to look like they are wrapped in paper, and formerly used to carry Christmas gifts home from the store.

"All you had to do was put a bow on top," Harmon says, explaining that she found most of the boxes on eBay or elsewhere on the Internet.

"I like them because they remind me of my grandmother," Harmon says; her grandmother collected Christmas boxes as well, though none of them made their way into Harmon's collection.

Some of the boxes, so packed beneath the tree that they cascade out from under the branches toward the center of the room, are from the World War II era and shine with patriotic reds, whites and blues.

"This is a reproduction of an early tree," Harmon says. Its ornaments are what really make it sing the songs of holidays celebrated long ago.

"[A] bride and groom that was on my parents' wedding cake in 1946" enjoys the place of honor high on the tree. Harmon reaches for a reindeer decoration, which shows its age -- over 100 years old. "He is my only old Dresden," she says. The first Dresdens, named for the city in Saxony, Germany, were made from pressed cardboard and coated in silver, she says.

Also on the tree are old-fashioned candles, some surrounded with Isen Glass to protect the flame (and the tree) and others meant to burn for just an hour or so -- under careful supervision and with a bucket of water close at hand.

"Everything on the tree is antique," she says.

Collecting Christmas antiques has been a long-standing family tradition.

"My mom was an antique collector," Harmon says. "I think it kind of gets in your blood."

Harmon's other collections offer a contrast to the Christmas memorabilia: a large pot of rolling pins sits in the kitchen, an arch of flow blue china plates hangs above a door in the living room, and a bottle of colored glass bulbs decorates the kitchen table.

Her largest collection, by far, is of a seasonal theme.

Jugs on the shelves were removed to make room for holiday tins, and oil lamps lined up in the dining room emit a festive air in matching reds and golds.

"As you can guess, Christmas is my favorite holiday," she says.

If the hundreds of ornaments and "gardens" of tiny people and animals under the many Christmas trees were not testament enough to the celebration of that fact, the aroma of cinnamon, cloves, ginger and pickling spices wafting through the house from the kitchen amidst the melodies of harps and mandolins would seal the deal with a great big Christmas bow.

"We just like old Christmas," Harmon says.

The care taken to decorate the remainder of the old house reiterates that passion.

Almost every tree in the house features a collection of bottlebrush trees, little people and animals at its base.

"This is how my tree was decorated when I was little, under the tree," she says. Cardboard houses made in Japan could be used on the tree, if desired, but Harmon's family would place them under the tree.

"That was part of our garden, as we called it," she says.

"The Germans gave Christmas to us in the style we know today," Harmon says, indicating the ornaments throughout the house that hail from the German tradition.

"They're the ones who produced the ornaments," she says.

A tree in the grandchildren's room upstairs illuminates the differences between German and Italian ornaments.

"Italian ornaments are unusual because they're blown free form, they're not blown into molds like the German ornaments," she says.

A tree in the family room features Nuremberg Angels, called Rauschgoldengels in German, originally dating back to the Christkindlmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany, in the 1600s.

"They're always blonde," she says of the angels, which earned their name from the sound their metallic foil made when moved.

In the downstairs hall is a well-known sign of Christmas: The nutcracker, framed in a cabinet along with little German wooden angels, Santas, curl carved trees and smokers.

"The same carvers who make the German nutcrackers make these little smoking men," she says, demonstrating how the smokers are incense burners, which each release a steady stream of smoke through a tiny wooden pipe.

German statues of people and animals and miniature bottlebrush trees fill out the cabinet, which was an early Christmas gift Harmon received from her husband, Michael, to house part of her collection.

The Harmons are not new to the joyful task of decorating their home and inviting the community in to enjoy it.

"Where my husband and I lived in Charlotte [N.C.], we were in a tour there," she says. The Harmons moved into their current home in Strasburg in 2007.

The 2009 Strasburg Holiday Homes Tour, presented by the Strasburg Heritage Association in partnership with the Massanutten Garden Club, will take place Dec. 12 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Featured residences are the Harmon Home at 316 E. Brown St., Strasburg United Methodist Church & Parsonage at 114 W. Washington St., the Huntsberger Home at 384 S. Holliday St., the Vincent Home at 357 Sandy Hook Road, and the Taylor Home at 415 Sandy Hook Road. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased in advance at the Strasburg Chamber of Commerce, the Hotel Strasburg, People's Drug Store, Lantz Pharmacy, and First Bank in Strasburg and Front Royal.


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