By Lisa Breslin

Christmas celebrations across the county are as varied as renditions of Silent Night. For some, the best part of the holiday is the music or the holiday decorations; for others, it’s the rich food or the family traditions that barely shift from year to year.

Ultimately, the common theme that weaves these diverse approaches together is an undeniable, sometimes indescribable spirit of the season. For some people, the spirit is Christ, for others, it’s an unconditional love that they tend to notice more during the holiday season.

The Theme Is Family
Seven stockings hang across the mantle at the Lambertson’s Westminster home, one for each child: Joshua, age 17; Laurie Anne, 14; John, 12; Sarah, 11; Maggie, 9; Eliza, 2; and Amelia, 10 months. The mantle isn’t quite big enough for Mom and Dad’s stockings, so theirs are stretched out on the floor. Soon, toothbrushes, candy, gum, body lotion (for the girls), canisters of bb’s (for the boys), books, coloring books, and deodorant will spill out.

For a brief moment, life on the Lambertson’s 11-acre farm is calm. Seven children, three cows, 15 sheep, three dairy goats, 10 chickens, 12 to 15 rabbits, countless barn cats, three indoor cats and the family’s black lab, Mollie, are down for the night.

Mary is an emergency room nurse at Carroll Hospital Center, and Chip heads up the estimations department for Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. in Towson. Coordinating their schedules during the holiday season is often a miracle by itself.

That undeniable, indescribable spirit of the season enters the Lambertson’s home when the family admires the Christmas tree with its medley of ornaments. Chip and Mary Lambertson aren’t theme-tree kind of parents – unless the theme is “homemade/family.”

On the tree there are coffee filter angels with tiny faces drawn on each of them (a preschool project), candy cane mice, and Rudolph with pipe cleaner antlers (elementary school). Chip and the oldest son, Joshua, put up the tree and the lights. Everyone decorates, and after Christmas, Mary says, no one wants to take the tree down. “We play carols, drink hot chocolate, eat popcorn, and have one or two harmless fights – no, I’m kidding about the fights,” Mary said. “It really is a happy time. Every year the children look at ornaments as if they’ve seen them for the first time and they say, ÔI remember when I made this for you.’ ”

Looking for the Ideal Tree
Across town, Tim and Marilyn Jenkins admire the 17-foot redwood tree outside their home. Now adorned with ornaments and lights, it’s their Christmas tree, and it’s much grander than the houseplant that the couple decorated when they were newlyweds.

Tim, a musician, is playing jazz versions of Marilyn’s favorite Christmas tunes on his guitar. Soon he’ll make his annual journey to Taneytown Presbyterian Church where he plays “Some Children See Him” for the congregation each Christmas Eve.

Marilyn, an art teacher at Robert Moton Elementary School, revels in the peaceful moment, and secretly hopes Tim will fill her Christmas stocking with tubes of new paint and Mark Knopfler’s latest CD.

The spirit of the season enters Tim and Marilyn’s lives when, after enjoying a shrimp dinner with her father, Walter W. Pallack , they look at the glow of his fiber optic tree.

“It looks real nice,” they tell him, their eyes wide with disbelief.

But Marilyn remembers endless time spent searching for the ideal tree with
her late mother, Sharon Ann. The tree had to have the right shape, the right needles, the right smell. Now that her mother is gone, Marilyn is certain that the fiber optic tree is her dad’s loving form of rebellion.

“Dad and mom saved every ornament we made and now they are on that tree. The ornaments have a new life and the tree is perfect,” Marilyn says with a pause “Éfor Dad.”

Keeping Up Tradition
Cooper Maddox Unkle’s first Christmas ornament hangs on the tree in the Unkle’s Manchester home. His mother’s “Baby’s First Christmas 1977” ornament hangs nearby. It is her twenty-seventh holiday. “Cooper’s First Christmas” ornament marks the baby’s very first.

Cooper’s father, Jason, has finished reading “The Night Before Christmas” just as his grandfather did throughout his childhood. Jason jokes that he ate too much food at the annual Christmas Eve seafood dinner with the family.

The spirit of the season lives when Melissa tells him one of her favorite Christmas memories: “My parents [Mel and Sue Petrochko], finished wrapping presents in the wee hours of the morning, and they were so excited that they woke the children up then and there.”

“When Cooper gets older, he will probably have to wait until we’ve had coffee, ” said Melissa, a teacher at Carroll Lutheran School.

“And he’ll also probably have to open one present at a time like I did. It makes the joy last,” said Jason, an engineer with Hunt Valley’s SEMO.

Defined by Love

In South Carroll, single mother Emily Vespignani tucks in her two-year- old daughter Adria. She thanks God that her final exams are over, her senior seminar paper for the English Department is complete, and that even though Adria’s arrival was unexpected, she has successfully earned her B. A. from McDaniel College one semester early.

Emily gently wraps one of her daughter’s blonde curls around her finger and realizes that the traditions that she recently scoffed at as a teen will soon be part of Adria’s “I love Christmas because” stories, too.

“Every Christmas Eve we troop to the paternal family for the big Italian dinner thing,” said Emily. “We see family in Pikesville and Owings Mills. Before we go to bed, we slowly open some presents – one at a slow time.”

Emily suspects that Adria will grow to love the big Italian dinners that involve “90 courses.” She too will endure the “onefamily- member-unwraps-one-present at a time” routine- if she can discern which presents are hers. Family tradition calls for bizarre nicknames (like Starbuck and Jolly Roger) on the presents’ tags in order to confuse the recipients.

Emily’s ideal Christmas reaches all of her senses. She savors the smells of hot apple cider, cinnamon, and nutmeg. She says that she is “a sucker for shiny things – the giant mass of ornaments on the tree, the glass balls that shatter.”

During the holiday season, Adria helps Emily realize that a family is defined by love – love from Emily’s parents, Holly and Art Vespignani, her sister, Sarah, aunts, uncles, Adria’s father, Gabe, his relatives, and Emily’s McDaniel College friends. “Christmas isn’t Christmas without spending time with the people who matter most,” she said.

The Essential (and Personal) Ingredients

Here’s how other families in Carroll define their ideal holiday:

Christmas isn’t Christmas withoutÉ

At least 16 family members arriving at 9:30 a.m. for Eggs Goldenrod. What’s that? I hard boil eggs, break up the yolk, create a white sauce and add the chopped egg whites, pour the sauce over toast and sprinkle egg yolk over that. Anyone who likes eggs will love Eggs Goldenrod; guaranteed.
–Darrelle Will,Westminster

My mom. She passed away in 1999. So, I’m still leaning toward bah humbug.
— Sue Stewart, Uniontown

Family, a Christmas tree. It has to be real and it has to be big. Christmas also has to include big, homemade cookies – not all the same kind. And finally, my Christmas also has to have snowflakes.
–Cindy Rex, Finksburg

Shopping for a Christmas tree with my family. We go to a Carroll County “cut-your-own-tree” farm, drink hot cider and spend an hour and a half looking for the perfect tree. Yes, Christmas means dragging my family 200 million miles in search of the ideal tree that was ultimately five feet away from the car. It’s strapping that perfect tree on the car, pulling it into the house, and then making sure that it’s straight – when the first one we looked at probably would have been straighter.
–Lou Salafia ,Mount Airy

All the traditions and being together. We try to focus on the giving more than the getting. We participate in the Angel Tree program, and the family learns the importance of giving time and money to other children in need. Christmas reminds us that people need to give back to each other and be part of the community.
-Kelly Chiavacci, Westminster

Santa Claus and doing what it takes to ensure that your children believe – especially when they are little. My dad reads The Night Before Christmas and a neighbor rings bells outside at just the right moment. The children freak out; they jump into bed certain that Santa is there. One year my husband, Kevin, got fur, shaped it like a deer leg, and dangled it from the roof in the front window. That really got to the kids and me too. I thought he was going to fall off the roof.
-Chris Neibuhr,Westminster

My mother, Doris Garber. She is the bond that holds us together. Sure, we have traditions like reading The Night Before Christmas and The Christmas Story, but getting together on Christmas Eve with my mom is what makes Christmas Christmas.
–Christine Lynch, Westminster

Having all six of my children home. Alice is in her final year at University of Maryland Law School and John is in his first year there. Our daughter, Erin, has been studying at McDaniel in Budapest, and the youngest three–Sarah, Emily, and Nicholas–are with us.
–Brenda Middleton, Westminster

Family, good food, hot chocolate with marshmallows, and going to church. That’s my version now – in Carroll County. My Hawaii answer: Christmas isn’t Christmas until the palm tree is lit, the kahlua pig has been cooked, poi is in the bowl ready to eat, and everything else I mentioned before.
–Oralee Smith, Westminster