The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Westmoreland Country Christmas

By Emily P. Cary © 1991

Issue: December, 1991

They call her "Mrs. Christmas," this sprightly native of Virginia's Northern Neck. And no wonder, for Florence Jenkins Muse's life revolves around her annual theme-oriented Christmas party.

"It's my way of celebrating the Lord's birthday," she says, snappy eyes dominating an attractive, youthful face that belies the seasons suggested by her smartly coifed, snowy hair.

Readily admitting to 60 years, the former teacher and columnist for the local weekly prides herself that her annual bathing suit poses, snapped by her husband, Goodwin, throughout their marriage, reveal a striking, supple figure that has changed little since her youth.

"God has been good to me," she says, gesturing in a wide arc to encompass the idyllic scene that is "Brightly," the oldest American farm in continual operation by the same family.

"When I married Goodwin Muse 30 years ago, the beauty of this place inspired me to name it after a line from my favorite hymn, 'Brightly beams the Morning Star.' It's such a glorious location," she says.

Glorious is a mild description, for the Muse farm's location is a history buff's dream. Three boundaries abut National Park Service land, the George Washington Birthplace property containing a Visitor's Center, the Washington family burying ground, and a Colonial Living Farm near the site of the first Popes Creek plantation built by John Washington, the president's grandfather.

"The Muse and Washington families were neighbors for many years, although the Muses came quite a bit earlier," Florence says. "About 20 years ago, the government bought portions of the original Muse farm to expand the Washington property and develop the site into a park large enough to serve the public."

Flashing her warm smile, she urges, "Come, see the monument." She beckons visitors to the large stone erected in 1988 by Muse descendants in honor of their ancestor, John Muse (or Meuse), who was born in the north of England in 1633.

Seeking his fortune, Muse sailed up the Potomac River in 1660 and claimed a choice parcel of land at the mouth of Popes Creek. There he built a home and prospered until his death in 1723 at the age of 90 years.

As the river advances, John Muse's descendants moved their homes away from the water. After one formal colonial house was consumed by fire, it was replaced by a traditional 19th Century farmhouse that is occupied today by Goodwin's nephew. Because Florence and Goodwin have no children, the nephew will inherit the farm. Thus, the Muse tradition of family ownership will remain unbroken.

Beyond the farmhouse garden, Florence and Goodwin built for themselves a comfortable brick house filled with modern appliances that serve their busy lives. This is the site of the Christmas parties.

"We've entertained friends and relatives every Christmas since we've been married, but I didn't begin my theme parties until 1983," Florence says. "The idea suddenly came when I asked the Lord how I could do something special for Him with the talents He gave me. He told me to start simply, so I decided to learn quilting and to use the strawberry as my focus because everyone loves them."

A wizard at mastering every skill she attempts, Florence redecorated and adorned her home by Christmastime, not only with strawberry quilts, but with draperies, pillows, linens, holiday handicrafts, table arrangements, china, glassware, and a menu inspired by the lush, red fruit. Enchanted, her guests spread the word of the beautiful party throughout Westmorland County. To everyone who mentioned hearing about her beautiful party, Florence extended an invitation for the following Christmas.

"Goodness, I can't repeat strawberries," she thought, convinced that her guests would expect to be surprised. She determined to build the Christmas 1984 theme around another farm product, apples.

Away into storage bins went the strawberry quilts, draperies, china and knick-knacks. By midwinter, Florence was exploring local church sales, antique shops and novelty stores for everything she could convert into apples or apple trees.

During her search, however, precious straw hats, potpourris, dented milk pails, and crisp ginghams shouting "Country" caught her eye. There was nothing for it but to snap them up and target a Country Christmas theme for 1985.

All her life, Florence Muse has collected shells which she has either gathered herself or received from world-circling friends. A huge cabinet in the guest room displays what some have called the largest private shell collection in the nation. What could be more natural for Christmas 1986 than a shell theme!

Guests that year marveled at yards of handiwork delicately embroidered with shells, striking nautical arrangements tucked into every nook of her home and a menu created around succulent seafood dishes served — of course — in shells.

The owner of a rich soprano voice that leads the Coles Point United Methodist Church choir, Florence was inspired to construct her 1987 celebration around the Songs of Christmas. Outdoors, guests were welcomed by the strains of "Jingle Bells" resounding from a well used and well loved red sleigh manned by Santa. Frosty the Snowman, stationed by the front portico, added his jolly harmony, while "White Christmas" poured from a tape recorder secreted amid the sparkling white branches of the front door wreath.

Just inside the entrance way, the commercial symbols of Christmas gave way to a reverent manger scene bathed by "Silent Night" chimes. Overhead, the hall ceiling was decked with thick boughs of holly sprinkled with bunches of mistletoe. The melody of "Deck the Halls" emanated along the path to the living room.

There, the focal point was the Christmas tree, decorated as early German settlers might have adorned "O Tannenbaum." Atop the fireplace mantel, Florence had arranged a snow-covered colonial village representing "O Little Town of Bethlehem."

On a dining room sideboard, a host of angelic heralds intoned, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," while tapers on the serving table commanded, "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella."

Guests continually gravitated to the enclosed porch off the kitchen, lured by the seductive aroma of hot spiced cider in a bottomless tureen. Nearby, a great stuffed goose sidled up to a battered hat containing a solitary penny. To one puzzled observer, Florence laughed, "Do you remember the nursery rhyme that begs, 'the goose is getting fat, Please to put a penny in the old man's hat?'

Florence Muse's inventiveness and innate humor popped up again in the bathroom, where a trio of Dickensian figurines cavorted atop the vanity to "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen."

While Christmas carols poured non-stop from every room and cranny of her house, Florence Muse ferried delectable's from the kitchen to the expansive dining table. Her buffet menu, inspired by Merrie Olde England, revolved around a silver tray heaped with succulent roast beef that partakers stuffed into hot rolls or mated with Yorkshire pudding. It was flanked by potted cheese, plum puddings, trifles, current cakes, mincemeat pies, and platters of Florence's coconut cookies made form her secret recipe with a mashed potato base.

For the Victorian Christmas of 1988, Florence Muse transformed her home into a satin-and-lace turn-of-the-century dwelling sparkling with cut glass hurricane lamps and bowls. Bisque-headed dolls lolled lazily in wee rocking chairs and the Christmas tree fairly dripped with handsome ornaments constructed from feathers, lace, and paper.

The menu, adapted from one served by a tycoon of the Victorian era, consisted of baked Virginia ham, biscuits, roasted oysters, clam chowder, fruit pies, a variety of layer cakes and immense bowls of fruit.

A Children's Christmas of 1989 honored the growing number of children in the wide circle of Muse family and friends. Arriving guests were greeted by a life-size bear in the outdoor sleigh. Indoors, huggable teddy bears, all wearing Santa hats fashioned by Florence, were stationed everywhere. Each went home with a happy tot.

"I collected 52 bears, one for each nephew and niece, and then I turned the guest room into a toy store," she says. "It was an ideal way to resolve the gift dilemma because I found enough toys at sales for each child to select two. They loved being able to 'shop' for the toys they wanted."

For the master bedroom, Florence crafted a Log Cabin quilt to harmonize with the Early American decor she introduced in fresh new wallpaper (hung with her usual professional swish) and rag rugs throughout the house, all in shades of blue accented by touches of red and white.

Earlier in the year, while browsing in an antique shop, she had spied a large wooden chair that cried out to be refinished in a soft shade of blue. It was perfect for displaying a pair of Barbie and Ken dolls who, despite having reached the age of 30, consented to be dressed and undressed by little hands eager to see how they looked in their smart outfits hanging in the adjacent doll wardrobe.

The Christmas tree was draped with strings of popcorn (completed by Florence while she sat in front of her crackling fireplace during cool autumn evenings), sparkling baubles to illuminate young eyes, and tiny fuzzy animals. On the stove, cauldrons bubbled with taffy to pull after the guests consumed their fill of hamburgers, hot dogs, baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad, chocolate chip cookies and homemade ice cream.

Even as Florence Muse puts the finishing touches on her White Christmas of 1990, she is experimenting with basket weaving.

Always a quick study, Florence produced several dozen reed mini-market baskets after taking but a handful of lessons from a local crafts teacher. She is presently soaking some in coffee and others in various strengths of tea to determine which treatment produces the richest, most rustic color.

Ask about the theme for 1991 and Florence's eyes twinkle merrily. In their depths, myriad ideas churn, ready to erupt the moment she closes the door behind the last White Christmas guest.

Each year, the Muse Christmas list grows. It is a congenial, eclectic assemblage of kinfolk, church members, "Brightly" neighbors, the National Park Service staff, Florence's former students and - more frequently now - their own sons and daughters, local farmers, teachers, the Westmorland County Garden Club, and acquaintances from distant corners of the state. Those residing deep in the Shenandoah and Blue Ridge Mountains eagerly make the long trek annually for a magical day to be cherished and savored in the memory until the next rolls around.

Touched by their hosts' empathy, enthusiasm for life, and yearlong devotion to the Lord's birthday, all comers to the warm gatherings feel as if they truly are home for the holidays. Through her boundless love and multi-talents, Florence Muse has established a Christmas tradition worthy of historic Westmorland County's pride.

Florence Muse's Magical Coconut Cookies

1 stick butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 1/2 cups instant potato flakes
1 1/2 cups bisquick
1 teaspoon coconut flavoring

Melt butter in large pot. Stir in remaining ingredients. Mix well. Using hands, pat into cakes about 2 inches in diameter. Place on greased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, Do not let them brown.