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TideWriters Tales
Mrs. Christmas
By Emily Pritchard Cary

     Now that merchants leapfrog from Halloween to Christmas, with scant tribute to Thanksgiving, I view their cavalier rush to profit as permission to hang my Christmas banner prior to Advent.

     The miniature quilt, created by Florence Muse on the occasion of our move from Virginia to Arizona, represents her love of God and our American heritage. A red polka dot cross dominates the patchwork field of homespun swatches plucked from her sewing basket. Country patterns in holiday colors of red, white, and green evoke visions of evergreens in the snow, cardinals at the bird feeder, scarlet holly berries against a sprig of waxy green leaves, and children hanging stockings above the fireplace of their rustic cabin.

     No matter that the color scheme translates here in the Southwest to climbing bougainvillea, white oleander, and red-headed flickers nesting in cacti, the thought behind the season is universal.

     Florence’s gift is an extension of the talents she began developing two decades ago. The first of her annual theme-oriented Christmas parties was held in 1983.

     “It was my way of celebrating the Lord’s birthday,” she says. “The idea suddenly came when I asked the Lord how I could do something special for Him with the talents He gave me. He told me to start simply, so I decided to learn quilting and to use the strawberry as the theme because everyone loves them.”

     A curious student, as well as a master teacher, Florence is a wizard at learning new skills. By Christmas time, she had redecorated and adorned her home with handiwork that included strawberry-covered quilts, draperies, pillows, linens, table arrangements, and a menu inspired by the luscious fruit. For good measure, she discovered china and glassware in local shops to blend perfectly with the theme. 

     The party was such a hit that, before the last guest departed, she began planning an Apple Christmas 1984. By midwinter, Florence was exploring local church sales, antique shops, and novelty stores for objects and material destined to represent apples or apple trees. During her search, she could not ignore the straw hats, potpourris, milk pails, and crisp gingham begging to become part of her Country Christmas 1985.

     Over a lifetime, Florence gathered what some have called the largest private shell collection in the country. Displayed in the glass encased cabinet of her guest room, they were a natural theme for Christmas 1986. Guests that year marveled at yards of handiwork delicately embroidered with shells, striking nautical arrangements tucked into every nook of her home, and a menu created around succulent seafood dishes served, naturally, in shells.

     Christmas 1987 celebrated the Songs of Christmas, beginning with the strains of “Jingle Bells” resounding from a red sleigh manned by Santa in the yard. Frosty the Snowman ushered guests past the portico to the front door where a tape recorder playing “White Christmas” was camouflaged by a sparkling white wreath. 
Indoors, chimes played “Silent Night” alongside the manger scene. The hallway ceiling decked with thick boughs of holly and mistletoe, accompanied by a chorus of “Deck the Halls,” pointed the way to the living room dominated by an enormous Christmas tree decorated as early German settlers might have envisioned “O Tannenbaum.”

     Wherever one wandered, Christmas music poured from every room and cranny of the house, here a snow-covered village representing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” there a squadron of heavenly hosts caroling “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” even a trio of Dickensian figurines cavorting atop the bathroom vanity warbling “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”

     While guests exclaimed in delight, Florence ferried delectables from the kitchen to the buffet, a menu inspired by Merrie Olde England. Her silver tray was heaped with roast beef that was carved and stuffed into hot rolls or mated with Yorkshire pudding. It was flanked by potted cheese, plum puddings, trifles, currant cakes, mincemeat pies, and platters of Florence’s coconut cookies made from her secret recipe.

     For her Victorian Christmas of 1988, she transformed her home into a satin-and-lace turn-of-the-century dwelling sparkling with cut-glass hurricane lamps and bowls. Bisque-headed dolls lolled lazily in wee rocking chairs, and the Christmas tree fairly dripped with dainty ornaments of feathers, lace, and cut-paper. 
The menu, adapted from one served by a noted tycoon, consisted of baked Virginia ham and biscuits, roasted oysters, clam chowder, fruit pies, a variety of layer cakes, and immense bowls of fruit.

     A Children’s Christmas of 1989 honored the growing number of children in the wide circle of Florence’s family and friends. A life-size bear in the outdoor sleigh greeted arriving guests. Indoors, 52 huggable teddy bears, all wearing Santa hats fashioned by Florence, were stationed throughout. Each went home with a happy tot, who also “shopped” for two gifts from the guest room toy store.

     Early American décor throughout the house included a Log Cabin quilt Florence made for the occasion, fresh new wallpaper hung with her usual swish, and handmade rag rugs throughout in shades of blue with red and white accents.

     The Christmas tree was draped with popcorn strings and tiny, fuzzy animals. On the stove, cauldrons bubbled with taffy the youngsters pulled after consuming their fill of hamburgers, hot dogs, baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad, chocolate chip cookies, and homemade ice cream.

     Could Florence top this? Just ask the guests who attended her White Christmas of 1990, followed by the Farm Christmas of 1991, where their favors were mini-market baskets that she learned to make in a basket-weaving class. After dying the finished baskets in solutions of coffee and tea to achieve rustic coloring, she filled them with brown eggs purchased from a local chicken farmer.

     Florence’s gala Christmas parties continued until the passing of her husband, Goodwin, in 1999 and her subsequent move from “Brightly” back to her Home Place in Hague. They brought together a congenial, eclectic assemblage of kinfolk, church members, neighbors, the National Park Service staff, former students, local farmers, teachers, the Westmoreland County Garden Club, and acquaintances from distant corners of the state. Touched by their hostess’ empathy, enthusiasm for life, and year long devotion to the Lord’s birthday, they cherish memories of those special holidays. 


Florence Muse at “A Children’s Christmas”

Florence Muse at “A Children’s Christmas”
Photo courtesy of Emily Pritchard Cary

© 2003 Emily Pritchard Cary. All Rights Reserved. Contact Emily Cary at 

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