Happy holidays in an old house

By: Shannon Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Musings

It was springtime in Tennessee when I bought my first old house. With summer coming on and the prospect of no central air conditioning, you can bet that Christmas was on my mind. I spent long hours thinking about where we would put the Christmas tree, what kind of garlands and swag we would hang on the big porch and how we would dress up the place to look like a winter wonderland, just in time for the biggest Christmas party the neighborhood had ever seen.

But as with most things concerning old houses, you should always have a "plan B."

Holiday "oops" and lessons learned

One of the most eye-opening lessons about old houses during the holidays came at my neighbor's expense. He had a beautiful home that he dressed up for every holiday, and it was always a sight to behold. As Christmas approached, he added a new outdoor decoration -- a lovely wooden plaque in the shape of a Christmas tree, one that had his family's last name emblazoned proudly across the front.

He carried it to the perfect spot in the front yard. With a mallet, he began to pound the steel support rod into the ground. After only four taps of the mallet, water suddenly erupted from beneath his feet. It was a fast flood that was soon pouring into the street.

The support rod had somehow found its way into a crack in a pipe, and the force of the mallet driving it down made the crack bigger. Much bigger. His holiday decorations were put on hold as bulldozers made an appearance and the pipes under his yard were replaced.

Lesson learned: Keep decorations away from ancient pipes.

For our first Christmas in the old house, I went overboard in a big way. I invested in several hundred feet of lights, purchased a ten-foot cedar tree (hey, now I could make good use of those high ceilings!) and went bananas with miles of garland. It was all perfectly beautiful and exciting and was sure to be the envy of the neighborhood.

Then I plugged it all in.

There was a moment of sheer beauty before the lights went out. ALL the lights. And the refrigerator, and the furnace, and everything else. The whole place shut down.

I had blown every fuse in the box -- every one of them. Even ones that weren't remotely involved in the big light show. How that happened I will never know, but it's safe to say that my holiday decorating dreams were downsized in a hurry.

Lesson learned: Ancient fuses and holiday decorations don't mix.

The week before Christmas, I found myself alone in the house. The sun was setting, and the familiar red glow was shining through the windows. I plugged in the lights for the tree (which was now a much smaller version of the original behemoth) and sat in the corner of the room with a mug of hot chocolate, surveying the house.

Tiny white lights twinkled. The furnace kicked in with a gentle whoosh. There was a fine layer of snow on the ground outside the old windows. The hardwood floor creaked when I shifted in my seat. The house smelled of cinnamon, cedar and old wood. I could close my eyes and imagine the first Christmas shared by a family there, probably sometime in the early 1900s.

Did they have candles in the windows? Was there snow on the ground? Did they have a fire burning in the big fireplace? Did they have presents under the tree, homemade stockings filled with candies, excited children thumping down the stairs on Christmas morning?

No matter what kind of celebration they had, I have to believe that there were magical moments in that old house. And now, it was our turn. I sat there and watched the sun go down, watched the lights twinkle and waited for my family to come home to their little piece of old-fashioned paradise.

Lesson learned: Old houses make for a magical holiday season.