Nativity from Sorrento, pyramid from Dresden: Yuletide European-style in Cherry Hill
George Raed and Mike Russo celebrate Christmas in Europe without leaving home. Their comfortable Cherry Hill condo is aglow with traditional, artisanal, and unusual yuletide decorations - from Germany, Austria, Italy, France, and Switzerland. It's an adroitly arranged display of international customs and craftsmanship.
George Raed and Mike Russo celebrate Christmas in Europe without leaving home.
Their comfortable Cherry Hill condo is aglow with traditional, artisanal, and unusual yuletide decorations - from Germany, Austria, Italy, France, and Switzerland. It's an adroitly arranged display of international customs and craftsmanship.
"When we're actually done decorating - it takes two days, and the tree is last - we just sit there with big smiles," says Russo, 65, a recently retired PNC bank software engineer.
"I get a sense of peace," says Raed, who's 67 and retired from Amtrak as a vice president of market research in 2011. "You need that in today's world."
The couple have been curating their informal but extensive collection of tree ornaments, table linens, music boxes, model trains, and Nativities - a carved one from Sorrento, another, made of pewter, from Munich - during their more than two decades together.
Many of the items come from Christmas markets or retailers they have visited during trips to the Continent, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia.
"In our travels, if we see something we like, we bring it home," says Russo, who grew up in Maple Shade.
"We're eclectic," says his partner.
"At the markets, it's not about buying stuff," Raed adds. "It's about being there."
Their collection is like an ongoing story, connecting continents, cultures, families, and friends - including those for whom an invitation to one of the number of small, casual Christmastime gatherings at George and Mike's is an annual highlight.
Among their friends are Dan and Carole Cirucci, who live in the same condo complex.
A board member of the owners' association, Carole says the men are "treasured residents who look out for their neighbors and really care about" the community.
"And at Christmas," she adds, "their [home] is an absolute joy."
I quickly come to share that feeling as Raed and Russo give me a tour.
"You might want to see our Christmas pyramid, from Dresden," Raed says, his voice still redolent of his native New York City.
He directs my attention to a two-foot-high tabletop piece that's part étagère, part carousel, part windmill . . . and thoroughly delightful.
"When you light the candles," he explains, "the heat rises and turns the wheel."
Raed shows me an Advent calendar (imagine a dollhouse crossed with a cuckoo clock) and a gloriously hued flock of angel figurine wall plaques from Oberammergau, Germany.
He also points out festive pendants ("I call them clusters," he says) of handblown, iridescent glass ornaments that brighten walls and corners.
One includes the figure of a horse whose festive tail is of actual horse hair.
"What really draws you in is the detail," notes Russo, opening an exquisite German "treasure box" that's a miniature version of a vintage Victrola.
His favorite display is his model train layout; he had several of them at their former home in Collingswood.
The consolidated Christmas version features a European village with replicas of actual structures they have seen in their travels.
"This is the main tower in Rothenburg, Germany," Russo notes.
He and Raed met in the mid-1990s at a "two-step" dance event at Woody's, the nightlife institution in Philadelphia's Gayborhood.
Raed's parents emigrated from Cuba, and Russo's, from Italy; both men were raised in working-class, Catholic, extended families for whom celebrating Christmas was deeply meaningful.
That's one reason Russo makes sure to include some of his mother's ornaments - fondly remembered from his childhood on Mildred Avenue in Maple Shade - on the 8-foot tree in the Cherry Hill living room.
"We didn't have money, and there was a box of ornaments that were special to her," he recalls. "She'd guide my brothers and I about where to put them on the tree."
Christmas remains a collaborative effort; creating and enjoying the seasonal wonderland inside their home "just fills me up," Raed says.
"The best part of it are the memories of our trips, and of other Christmases," says Russo.
"We start reminiscing, 'This is something my mother enjoyed,' or, 'This is something we did when we were kids.' "
To bask in that glow, Russo says, is to be "flooded with good thoughts."