More than a decade ago, as Ashley Leese was driving through Moorestown, she saw a stately, perfectly balanced Georgian Colonial on a corner. It seemed to beckon her.
"I could definitely see you living there," her mother-in-law said, which turned out to be prophetic, though not immediately.
The house came on the market in 2006. "When I walked in the door, I truly fell in love," Ashley says.
But the Leeses were living in a fairly new house in Moorestown then and had three children under 3, so the timing was definitely not right. Plus, her husband, Michael, didn't feel the pull quite as strongly.
"I was just wary of old houses and all the maintenance they need," he recalls.
Years passed, and Ashley sometimes ventured out with Realtors to see other houses in Moorestown, where they knew they wanted to stay. But that white Georgian Colonial hadn't let go of her.
Fast-forward to late 2011, when the property was on the market again. Michael had not relented on old houses, and the couple did not make an offer. The Realtor actually called Ashley to tell her that a bid for her dream house had been accepted.
She was crestfallen but resolved to make the best of their modern home, and to try to give it the look and feel of an older house.
Then on Valentine's Day, as Ashley and Michael were celebrating at a local restaurant, he suddenly pulled out a photo of the three Leese children on the front lawn of the house she had yearned for.
"We're the new owners," he told her.
Quite the surprise gift, the Leeses' cherished home becomes an extra-magical place during the holidays. Its transformation begins early, and the family goes all out, decorating indoors and out so the circa-1900s dwelling glows.
On the sprawling main floor, a Christmas tree with antique ornaments stands majestically in the dining room, boldly green against the room's soft coral color palette.
Positioned under a crystal chandelier, the table is often set for relatives, friends and neighbors in all seasons. This is a home - and a family - that embraces company.
The elegant living room, with its handsome fireplace and traditional pastel furniture, is hardly a no-trespassing zone for the three lively Leese children - Alexandra, 12; Isabella, 10; and Andrew, 9.
The exceedingly agile Andrew, in fact, has been known to joyfully scale the wall from the entry foyer to the living room.
Why? "Because it's fun," he says, grinning.
"We always intended this to be a comfortable family home," says Michael Leese, a lawyer with his own practice specializing in tax and business matters.
He's come around to loving a house with some age: "I started to realize that newer homes may not be so well-constructed, and also take work."
Also situated off the foyer, with its dramatic grand staircase, is a sunroom with a barrel ceiling hand painted with sky and clouds. Here, the less formal Christmas tree resides.
A quiet retreat known as the conservatory has a barrel ceiling, as well, hand painted with images of two little girls in different seasons who remind the Leeses of their own two daughters.
Both first-floor ceilings were painted long before the family owned the place, when it was briefly turned into a designer show house to raise funds for Deborah Heart and Lung Center in Browns Mills.
Stretched across the back of the structure, overlooking the expansive grounds, is a kitchen with a massive central counter that serves as a family kitchen table - but with room for many more than the five Leeses.
"Of course, it's where everyone always gathers," says Ashley, who loves to cook. Antique wooden blocks, garlands along the stairway, family stockings, and lots of fresh holly and pine clippings are reminders of the season.
A playful holiday mood even continues to the back stairway, where each riser carries one word of "The Night Before Christmas" as little cutout mice scamper up the steps - Ashley's handiwork.
The fun doesn't end on Christmas Day, of course. Each New Year's Day, Ashley and Michael return to a tradition from her Lancaster roots: a festive pork-and-sauerkraut dinner with loved ones that presumably brings good luck.