MOST OF THE YEAR, Maryland and Virginia farmers rail against the pesky cedar saplings that crowd their fields. Even the cattle pass them over for tastier greens. But at Christmas time the ubiquitous cedar comes into its own. Adorned with fruits, nuts and ribbons, it's braided into garlands and wreaths, tied to stair rails and piled on mantelpieces, filling homes and shops with its pungent aroma. Mixed with the smell of the hot cider many shops serve their customers at Christmas time, it becomes a fragrant invitation to recreate Christmas as it was enjoyed in an earlier, simpler era.
For the nostalgic shopper to whom these little touches matter, here's a guide to country shopping for handcrafted gifts, natural decorations and homemade Christmas foods, plus some collectibles and antiques -- and plenty of old-fashioned Christmas spirit to go with it. Most shops are open 10 to 5 on Saturdays and 1 to 5 on Sundays until Christmas.
MIDDLEBURG MELANGE As you enter Middleburg on U.S. 50 west, look for Robin King's shop in an old stone house on the right. She carries fine silver, crystal, period reproduction furniture and handmade quilts on the first floor. Narrow wooden stairs lead to the beamed cellar, a pastel wonderland of stuffed animals, pillows, dried herbs and flowers, animal cutouts tinted with milk paints and natural dyes, and pale French damask linens. 703/687-5534.
For the professional touch in Christmas decorations, try the Devonshire Shop at 7 North Liberty Street, which has boxwood trees decorated with sprays of dried flowers, ivy rings and lots of paperwhites and white orchids. 703/687-5990.
Most of Middleburg's shops are along Washington and Madison streets. Among the antique stores look for a newcomer, Antiques Et Cetera at 15 South Madison. The store has just received a crate of stone garden figures from Cornwall and lots of the honey-colored English scrubbed-pine country furniture. 703/687-6112.
Do either you or your pet get post-Christmas blues? At Deedee Hubbard's, order your pet's portrait embroidered on your favorite sweater ($45 to $350), or have him or her immortalized in a hand-painted porcelain sculpture ($40 up). A picture suffices for a model. Delivery in February or March. At 4 North Madison Street. 703/687-6470.
For a well-fed holiday tummy, try The Upper Crust at 4 Pendleton Street, 703/687-5666, for coffee and muffins or soup and sandwich on homemade bread served in the upstairs tea room. Then pick out a loaf of salted-to-perfection Italian bread, in tree, angel and reindeer shapes for Christmas. Perfect with the bread is Virginia cured country ham from The Gourmet Kitchen Plus, with Middleburg-made Appleton Farms tangy damson plum jam and chutney. The Gourmet Kitchen is at 10 West Washington Street, 703/687-6077.
HUNTING FOR GIFTS Some of Virginia's most beautiful hunt country lies along Route 626, an eight-mile drive south from Middleburg to The Plains, a country village of newly restored 18th-ings. Its quiet streets make Middleburg seem like a bustling metropolis.
The Plains' only craft shop is at The White Oak Forge, but the wrought iron, baskets, blown glass and pottery exhibited here are unusual and of the finest quality. In the forge next door to the gallery you can even watch the blacksmiths at work.
Jeanne Drevas searches fence posts and fields for honeysuckle roots, gnarled and bent with age, then shapes her pastel-tinted oak baskets around their lines as she weaves, working the honeysuckle tendrils into the design. These are baskets to be treated as art, and are priced accordingly -- $100 to $350.
The Forge's iron work also looks inspired by the fields and farms in the surrounding countryside. Vines, tendrils and flowers adorn sturdy garden gates, andirons and even its little $6 pickle fork. For sale are candleholders, hardware, hangings, fire pokers and fireplace sets starting at $2 for a handsome hook, $20 for a fire poker. The White Oak Forge is behind the Rail Stop Restaurant. Closed on Sunday, 703/253-5269.
The Plains has a chic new "California North Coast"-style restaurant -- Leathercoat -- with plenty of windows to let Virginia's soft winter sunlight wash over the polished pine and pale plum walls. Enjoy the wine bar ($2.50 to $7 a glass), lunch or brunch ($6 to $11), or dinner ($17 to $24), reservations recommended. It's at the corner of Stuart and Loudoun streets. 703/253-5286.
Wine and Roses, on Fauquier Street at Route 55 (703/253- 5530), serves homemade soup and bread to fortify hungry shoppers, and for Christmas-giving carries fresh pine ropes and wreaths, pine cones, grapevine wreaths, local honey and honeycombs, English farmhouse cheeses and wine from five Virginia wineries.
WINCHESTER WORTHIES Now on to Winchester, which has several craft shops in its downtown mall, plus Santa and free carriage rides. From The Plains, take Route 55 west to Marshall, where you pick up I-66 west, then take Route 17 north 10 miles, and turn left on U.S. 50, following it into town. Turn right on Cameron Street. There's public parking at Cameron and Boscawen streets.
At the Handworks Gallery, 20 West Boscawen Street, 703/662-3927, owner Sallie Ebert has gathered crafts from artisans all over the country. When you smell the lemon-rose fragrance of her "boiling herbs" simmering on the stove as you walk in the door, these little $2.50 packets will become stocking- stuffer musts on your Christmas list. Besides tree ornaments ranging from wooden cutouts to stuffed animals, she carries rosewood ballpoint pens, stuffed toys, and a variety of jewelry -- titatium, porcelain and rosewood inlaid with semi-precious stones and silver. Specialties are her thick and fluffy rag rugs in pastels and earth tones, priced from $42 to $136.
Knit One Purl 2, across the street, has a few knitted mittens and sweaters on hand, or you can order a sweater made from your own picture or pattern for $30 to $50 plus the price of the wool -- delivered after Christmas. Sheepskin items and Amish bentwood rockers are carried at the Hickory House at 110 West Boscawen, 703/662-3032.
Walk down to Loudoun Street (one block west) and step onto the Mall -- carefully. Horse-drawn carriages decorated for Christmas will be giving free rides along the Mall on Saturdays, 11 to 4. You can catch a ride in front of the Courthouse, near Santa's house, where he'll be giving balloons and candy to the children on Saturdays from 12:30 to 5.
At Loudoun Street turn left to Eva's Garden at No. 126. Plaid and seersucker bears will steal your heart as you walk in,but don't miss the redware pottery with pigs and cows, or the cinnamon stick wreaths. Eva also makes up Williamsburg wreaths if you order ahead, 703/662-1852.
Finish off the block with the Treehouse Kitchen Shop at No. 179, where owner Linda Hansbrough sells her homemade bread wreaths sprinkled with bird seed; and the Book Gallery at No. 185, which offers first-class browsing and lots of big picture gift books.
On your way back to Washington on U.S. 50 east, there are two good restaurants at the intersection with Route 340 (about 10 miles from Winchester). One is for the depleted pocketbook, the other for the restrained shopper who budgeted for a day-end repast of wine and French cuisine. Right on the corner you'll see the brilliant neon sign of the Lone Oak Restaurant. This is a favorite of locals, and should be appreciated more for the atmosphere and selections on the juke box than the reasonably priced food.
One mile south on Route 340 is L'Auberge Provenale, featuring a festive menu of partridge stuffed with chestnuts and buche de noel, the traditional French yule log rendered in cake and butter cream garnished with merinque mushrooms. L'Auberge's dining rooms are decorated with herbal wreaths and candles. (Reservations recommended, 703/837-1375). Prudence Squier last wrote for Weekend on the Waterford festival.