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Northwest Living
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A dining-room sideboard features a snowy dairy-farm tableau and pots of paperwhites in fresh cranberry "soil."
Paperwhites and Peppermint
Where the Swans live, Christmas blooms in every room

The calendar says it's early December, but already a sugar-plum perfume wafts through Collette and David Swan's house.

The nose knows that smell: a pungent mix of just-cut evergreens, gingerbread, melting candlewax and (surprise!) the soapy-sweetness of paperwhites by the dozens.

Christmas — with the promise of spring thrown in for good measure.

Every year, the Swans start thinking Christmas on Veterans Day, when Collette goes down to the cool, dark basement of the couple's Laurelhurst home to stuff hundreds of paperwhite bulbs in dozens of clay pots. If she times the blooms just right, the house will be filled throughout the holidays with creamy blossoms, nestled in fresh cranberry "soil" and tied with raffia bows.

Before the season is done and the decorations are packed away, the Swans will have entertained friends, family and neighbors with five parties. Collette will have donated 50 pots of paperwhites for the church bazaar. And every kid in the neighborhood who knows to ring the bell will go home with a peppermint lollipop tree.

A cheery wreath at the front door features cranberries, greens and a family of swans — one each for the couple and their four adult children.
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A nostalgic tree in the living room of Collette and David Swan's house features ornaments collected over the years, including Santas indulging in the same pastimes the Swans enjoy: skiing, playing tennis, fishing and lifting weights.
Christmas at the Swans' is wrapped in tradition and tied with ritual. Nothing is expressed in the singular and everything is as familiar as Christmas itself.

Evergreen boughs bound with scarlet ribbon drape the mantle, mirrors and staircase, and provide groundcover for all those pots of paperwhites. Gingerbread, gumdrops and snowy frosting become winter housing for a community of ginger people. Collette times the blooming paperwhites by bringing several dozen pots into the warm house in early December, so they'll begin blooming. The rest are kept on the front stoop — the cold air thwarts their blooms — until they're needed inside to replace bouquets that have begun to fade.

The paperwhites share space with an eclectic population of Santas, angels, snowmen, carolers, shepherds and magi, all making their own traditional magic in candlelight and twinkling Christmas bulbs. Off-season storage of all that cheery stuff takes six cupboards across an entire wall of the basement.

The Swans moved into the house six years ago from Los Angeles, where David was a cardiologist and Collette taught psychiatric nursing at the Los Angeles College of Nursing. They came to the Northwest to retire nearer their grown children and fell in love with the cottage overlooking Lake Washington the first time they saw it.

"This house is much, much smaller than our L.A. house," Collette says, "but we loved the view and even the smallness of it. I still have room for all the Christmas things we've always had, and I'm always buying more."

Christmas is everywhere. Stuffed Victorian Father Christmases climb the staircase beside the front door, alternating with pots of paperwhites. Needlepoint stockings — one for each member of the family, including the couple's children's spouses and their grandchildren — are attached to the banister. Candles on the sideboard bathe the entryway in flickering yellow light. Last year Collette bought a new Father Christmas at auction — a fisherman with a little pole and creel — to represent David's favorite pastime.

The tree in the living room tells the family's story in a different way. Tennis-playing, skiing, fishing and weight-lifting Santas dangle among the white lights sprinkled about a tall, skinny Noble fir. There are little stuffed bears and felt trees and bells that Collette bought at fundraisers for her children's private school. And there are silver and crystal ornaments from friends and former students who know Collette's love of all things Christmas.

On the antique grand piano is a nativity scene peopled with hand-carved figures. Collette's father made the rough stable about 30 years ago.
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A gumdrop house takes center stage on a dining table laden with treats.
Bits and pieces of a miniature village decorate mantles, windowsills and tabletops. There are too many lighted houses, shops and churches to put in one place, Collette says, so she sets up scenes everywhere. In the living room is a little neighborhood with an old station wagon parked on the street; in the family room, a fishing lodge.

The dining room is set up through the season for entertaining. Every year Collette invites several groups she belongs to for an afternoon or evening of Christmas cheer. You can't see the table for all the plates of chocolate truffles, pumpkin bread, cupcakes and decorated sugar cookies — most of it home-baked. The centerpiece is a gumdrop house with angel-hair smoke drifting out of the chimney. Places are set with Christmas dishes underscored by forest-green chargers from Collette's mother.

The family room off the kitchen has its own tree, a fir decorated with gingerbread men and goodies made for the cookie exchange Collette hosts every year. Last year, 20 people came, including a dozen who couldn't face baking cookies for each guest but who love the party. This year, they'll skip the exchange and just have tea, Collette laughs.

Under the tree is one of Collette's most recent purchases, a Santa chef overseeing a scene that features a snowman and two gingerbread kids stirring a bowl of dough dusted with powdered sugar.

"I guess I couldn't resist him," she says. "It looks like me at this time of year. It's not that I needed it, but he was just such a wonderful Santa, I couldn't do without him. Really, I don't know what I'd do without Christmas. I'd probably be very bored at this time of year."

Evergreen boughs and old-fashioned stockings festoon the banister while a collection of Victorian Father Christmas statues alternates with pots of paperweights on the risers of the entryway staircase.
Neighborhood children gravitate to the dining-room table for cupcakes, pumpkin bread and peppermint lollipops shaped like Christmas trees. Gingerbread-man cookies also attract.

Sally Macdonald is a retired Seattle Times reporter. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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