At Christmastime, from the moment you step onto Angela Sandone-Barr and Bill Barr's property in Riverton, N.J., the enchantment begins.
Nestled on the wooded lot are three dancing reindeer adorned with twinkling lights, greeting callers as they wind down the country driveway. Wreaths and white candles in every window illuminate the brown house that sits at the edge of a bird sanctuary.
That warm spirit radiates inside, not only from the fires that burn frequently in the fireplaces, but also from a couple who lovingly celebrate the joys of Christmas with family and friends.
On a July day in 2004, a friend mentioned an open house happening at a rustic residence situated on the Pompeston Creek in quaint Riverton. Curious about the structure, the couple, who were living in nearby Cinnaminson, remember the tour as being quick. Bill, who has had a long career in customer service and technology, was headed to the airport on business.
They also remember it being a lovely day, with greenery everywhere. "And the moment I looked out over the creek, I told Bill, 'This is my dream house. I really want it,' " says Angela, 62, who works as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist in Center City.
"I was a little startled," Bill, 61, admits, although he, too, could see the good bones of the house built in 1952, but hadn't expected such an strong reaction from his wife. Nevertheless, Bill, who enjoys a great deal of time outside working on the one-acre lot, was delighted that it was mostly in turnkey condition. Within two months, they had sold their house and moved into the two-story dwelling.
Over time, the couple, who married in 1999, have surrounded the living areas with an eclectic mix of farmhouse-style furniture. While the home reflects a take-your-shoes-off feel throughout the year, it is during the holiday season that it is most intense.
Angela, who grew up in South Philadelphia, has always enjoyed Christmas decorating. In late November, their large collection of decorations comes up from the basement. Every item prompts a memory - figurines from friends and relatives, tokens from trips, or mementos from their childhoods.
Each year, Brave Heart, a vibrant red-white-and-blue commemorative glass piece designed by Christopher Radko after 9/11, is the first ornament hung on the Christmas tree that stands proudly in the living room.
"It's almost ceremonial," says Angela, "the way we place it at eye level."
The tree also holds antique trinkets from Angela's and Bill's parents, and keepsakes from Bill's two adult children, Jen and Gregg, who each have their own toddler daughters.
Throughout the room, on shelves, windowsills, and the mantelpiece is Angela's collection of Santa Clauses in all styles of adornment - wood, tin, ceramic, even a Daniel Boone-esque Santa, who wears a jacket made of muskrat.
Growing up in an Italian family, Angela developed an appreciation for how food brings people together. She, along with Bill, keeps those rituals alive, cooking traditional meals in a kitchen that is the pulse of the home and a wonderful nexus of old and new.
Contemporary appliances share space with white artisanal cabinets, and a stately cherry armoire that holds more Santas. Counters are a dark-gray soapstone. A butler's pantry, complete with another refrigerator, stove, and sink, does double duty for large parties.
Just after Thanksgiving, the couple make more than 500 of Angela's pizzelles from an heirloom recipe handed down from her mother.
"We have an electric pizzelle maker. But in the old days, a pizzelle iron was held over a fire. At the midway point of the Hail Mary prayer, the iron was flipped," says Angela.
"We keep some of the pizzelles, but we give a lot as gifts," adds Bill, who hails from Pennsauken. He has been known to make the cookies while propped in front of an Eagles game in the upstairs family room, a spacious area added by the original owners that offers exceptional views of the creek and its wildlife.
On Christmas Eve, 30 guests - sisters, brothers-in-law, children, and grandchildren - gather in the dining room for La Vigilia and partake in the feast of the seven fishes. Customary dishes arrive on the table, such as risotto with scallops, hot crab dip, and breaded and fried shrimp and oysters - and for the Americani, salmon from the grill.
In the morning, over coffee and cranberry nut bread, gifts are opened with family members who've spent the night. Angela's gravy and stuffed shells are the highlight of Christmas dinner.
"We really love living here . . . and we've come to love not just our house, but also our neighborhood," says Angela. "We're not going anywhere."