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A country Christmas house: 'If I can make it myself, I'm happy'

Just as darkness descends, the show begins. Trees light up the night around a Cape Cod house on Salem Road in Burlington Township.

The country home of Chuck and Ginny Heal in Burlington Township is all decked out for Christmas.
The country home of Chuck and Ginny Heal in Burlington Township is all decked out for Christmas.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Just as darkness descends, the show begins. Trees light up the night around a Cape Cod house on Salem Road in Burlington Township.

It's a magical moment, and the regulars who know it cluster on the side of the road. The house interior is barely visible from there, but the outdoor landscape suggests there's a lot of Christmas going on inside.

To say that Ginny and Chuck Heal, both 69, love to decorate for this holiday would be profound understatement.

Starting around Halloween, the former owners of CS Heal's Farm Market, one of Burlington County's beloved farm markets, begin transforming every room in their country home into homemade holiday central.

Now that the market started in 1960 by Chuck's father, Charles, is gone - the land was developed for residential housing in 2005 - it is far easier for the couple who once worked seven days a week. But their work ethic endures: "My philosophy is that if I can make it myself - if I can avoid buying something that's already made, I'm happy," says Ginny.

Chuck, the solid anchor to Ginny's sail, is practical, and serves as guide, installer, occasional naysayer, and the man who knows when to put on the brakes. "She does get carried away," he says with a mix of humor and resignation.

But Chuck doesn't shy away from sentiment. Just beyond their front door is a painted Santa standing guard that was given to Chuck by his father when the lad was just 5 years old.

"I actually like that it shows its age," Chuck says. "But I do varnish it to keep it from weathering even more."

Step inside this house, and ornaments glow on tall and small trees, and the staircase is garlanded in greenery and ribbons. Yet no element seems out of place.

In the Heal living room reigns their largest indoor tree, with ornaments that have both beauty and sentimental value, particularly a delicate Christmas ball with a hand-painted image of St. Mary's Hall, the private school their son (now 43) once attended. The family, including the Heals' now 46-year-old daughter, still love the fragile eggshell ornament with its rendering of the Providence Presbyterian Church, where the Heals have long worshipped.

The tree branches are bedecked with bows and ribbons folded and bent by Ginny's hands, and strategically placed by Chuck's. Handmade quilts, some with Christmas themes, rest on sofas and chairs. A small tree in a back corner glistens with pieces made from the costume jewelry collection of Ginny's late mother with earrings, tiny pins, and beads from Mardi Gras.

Store-bought trimmings don't interest this couple, unless they happen to be a superb bargain, like the garden store clay pots topped with toy soldiers that line one area in the kitchen. "When we realized that we couldn't possibly make them as cheaply, we surrendered," says Chuck.

Of course, the holiday napkins in that kitchen were hand-sewn by Ginny, and, predictably, she prepares almost all of the food served at the holiday parties they host. A recent one included more than 50 guests, and the Heals were unfazed.

"You learn a lot about hard work when you work at a farm stand," Ginny said, an experience that for her began in the summers of her teen years and continued after marrying the farmer's son. (A photo of Ginny still in high school and decked out in a dress made from a seed bag is one of the couple's most cherished pieces.)

Most of the guests at the Heal parties inevitably wander outside to visit a highlight of the couple's two-and-a-half acre property.

A railroad crossing sign announces Chuck's labor of love, an intricately created miniature railroad that claims its own storage house.

Inside, it's in the kitchen with a wood stove that brings special warmth - and not just in temperature. A snowman-theme Christmas tree adds a whimsical touch, and it's here you'll be offered one of Ginny's homemade cookies.

"I know other people have much fancier things and more perfect trees," Ginny says. "But that never was our style."

The house, made from a Sears home kit by the original owner, well-known Burlington County Quaker Corson Poley, was something the couple admired from afar while they worked at the farm market.

"And when we finally became its owners in 1969," Ginny said, "we knew it was where we belonged. I actually could imagine Christmas in this house even then."