“I am a little Christmas nutty,” admits Julia Keelty. “But I just want my children to experience Christmas the way that I did.” Throughout her childhood, Keelty’s mother, known as “the original Christmas enthusiast,” decorated the family’s Chicago home with as many as five glorious trees. In her own Roland Park home, Keelty, a Baltimore-area volunteer, strives to re-create the same holiday cheer for her husband, Michael, and their three daughters. The scent of fresh fir, pine and boxwood drift through the house, transforming it into a Christmas wonderland. “I walk into the house every day in December and smell the aromas and it instantly puts me in a good mood,” Keelty says.
Around the first week of December, Keelty and a few hired hands drag out boxes of decorations from storage— many of which were bought en masse from The Merchandise Mart in Chicago— and begin to deck the halls. The festivity starts at the front entryway, where lighted garland with white poinsettias sweeps around the banister and an overflowing bouquet of fresh flowers graces a gilded marble-topped Louis XVI table. The bar area features a unique game theme, with masculine displays of brightly colored pheasant and peacock feathers intertwined with garland and pine cones.
The dining room boasts considerable holiday charm with lighted garland swags hung across the fireplace, an embroidered Christmas tablecloth and, of course, a special set of holiday china. “My mother gave me a 25-piece Christmas china set that I use for a traditional family dinner each year,” Keelty says. “But I have to add pieces to it due to the guest count.”
On Christmas night, 40 guests gather around Keelty’s table for a royal feast and a Secret Santa exchange. Throughout the season, Keelty and her husband also entertain close friends at intimate holiday gatherings in the home.
The music room captures the magic of the season with a traditional red and green palette and plenty of sentimental ornaments. “That room seems like a little Christmas jewel box,” Keelty says. “It is brimming with music boxes, glittering items— even a miniature stage with a nutcracker re-enactment. The kids love it.” Keelty hangs her daughters’ handmade childhood creations on the music room tree, showcasing handprint ornaments and school pictures framed with Popsicle sticks.
Keelty’s emphasis on family takes center stage in the living room, where a tree decorated with gold and cream ornaments complements the room’s subtle coloring. “In the living room, I try to keep the decorations more calm and low-key,” Keelty explains. This impulse seems natural considering the room’s traumatic past.
About eight years ago on Christmas night, the garland adorning the fireplace caught fire, setting the entire living room ablaze. The flames rose to the ceiling and the family was forced to flee the house. Everyone made it to safety, but the entire contents of the living room were ruined, including many Christmas presents.
“We threw away everything in the room,” Keelty explains, “everything except for the angel that sits at the top of the tree.” The angel, once a creamy gold, was charred black in the fire but the family continues to top the tree with it each year. “The presents and material things are a complete sidebar,” Keelty says. “The angel symbolizes the real meaning of Christmas, which is being safe, happy, healthy and with family.”
Flowers and greens Claymore C. Sieck, 311 E. Chase St., 410-685-4660, http://www.sieck.com; The Dutch Connection, 515 E. Belvedere Ave.; 410-467-7882, http://www.thedutchconnection.us
Christmas trees Green Fields Nursery & Landscaping Co., 5424 Falls Road, 410-323-3444; http://www.greenfieldsnursery.com
Decorations The Merchandise Mart, Chicago, http://www.merchandisemart.com