URBAN CHIC has plenty of appeal January through November, but come December, what hardcore devotee of high-tech/high-rise living doesn't long for roomfuls of pine and holly (at less than $5 a stem at the florist's), an old-fashioned chimney that Santa can navigate without risk of landing in the incinerator, and a Christmas tree of a girth and height greater than that of an apartment building elevator?
So, for urban souls who need a once-a-year "country fix," 14 sympathetic families in Harpers Ferry, Hillsboro and Winchester are opening their holly-bedecked and herb-scented rural homes for Christmas tours. All they ask from their city cousins are appreciative glances, nostalgic sighs and alms to aid their communities' time-worn walks, houses and schools. Tickets range from $3 to $8, with proceeds going toward historic preservation. HARPERS FERRY
One Hundred Years of Christmas is the tour theme here, with Christmas decorations authentic to the period of each house. Ronald and Linda Rago's 1833 Federal/Greek Revival house, built to house the family of an army officer stationed at the Harpers Ferry Armory, is the earliest home on the tour. An expert on herbs (she authored "Dooryard Herbs," Carabelle Books), Linda Rago decorates her brick "government issue" house entirely with fresh and dried herbs, researching 17th- century books for herbal symbols: rosemary for the Virgin Mary; sage for domestic tranquility; and thyme, which is said to illuminate the mystery of Christmas.
"Artemisia and myrrh are included just because they smell good," says Rago. The herbal theme plays well against the Ragos' collections of early painted furniture, coverlets, folk art, Staffordshire china and Shenandoah Valley pottery.
Across the street, Benjamin Bady, a freed slave and carpenter, built his family home in 1875, a sturdy Gothic Revival house that is dressed up for Christmas with fresh greens and poinsettias by its present owners, Darren Lisse and Linnea Hamer. Next door at artist Nena Stowell's and architect Kip Stowell's 1908 Sears modular mail-order house (they'll show you the 1908 catalogue their house was ordered from), the art nouveau interior is festooned with yards of gold satin ribbons, antique bird ornaments and whatever else the Stowells' artistic spirit conjures up. Last year they decorated with huge dried hydrangea blossoms.
Modern decorations are allowed at Ann and Martin Shuey's 1930s stucco house, but 19th- century fantasy reigns at Frederica Adkinson's rambling Victorian bed and breakfast. With every nook and cranny of the house filled with Victoriana, Adkinson's collections of 19th- century ornaments and toys fit right in. Ropes of pine and magnolia decorated with cranberries, feathers and birds complete this Victorian extravaganza.
St. John's Episcopal Church and Camp Hill- Wesley Methodist Church are also decorated for the tour, with refreshments served at Camp Hill-Wesley. The merchants' association sponsors pinatas, taffy pulls, a living nativity, concerts and strolling musicians, plus other Christmas features. Most shops weren't damaged by flood waters and are open 10 to 8 on Saturday, 10 to 6 Sunday.
The tours take place this Saturday from 10 to 8 and Sunday from 12 to 6. Tickets are $3 for adults, $1.50 for children under 12, and can be purchased in the Harpers Ferry National Historic Park at High and Marmion streets or at any of the tour houses.
HARPERS FERRY is about 11/2 hours from the Beltway. Take I-270 to Frederick, then U.S. 340 toward Charles Town. The Harpers Ferry National Historic Park sign on 340 directs you to the park and public parking, where a shuttle bus is available. All houses on the tour, except the Adkinson house, are only a few steps from each other. For more information, call 304/535-6612. HILLSBORO
Candlelight, bunches of shiny fruit, boxwood and magnolia leaves casting soft shadows against the stone and handhewn log walls of three 18th-century Hillsboro houses set the mood of Christmas past in this early Virginia mill town. A converted barn, a stark contemporary house and Hillsboro's 19th-century stone schoolhouse are also on the tour, but decorations are strictly colonial.
On Saturday afternoon, December 14, homeowners' breakfast dishes, house slippers and even favorite knick-knacks are tucked away in favor of the Hillsboro Community Association's lavish fruit, candle and greens arrangements, which are placed in every room of each house.
But the hosts are still very much in evidence. Virgil Copeland may show visitors the wood paneling his great-great grandmother brought from Pennsylvania as part of her dowry. Ann and Pascuale Exposito may point out their fireplace's seven-foot stone lintel or the early family portraits found in the attic. Mary Jane and Donald Virts may tell about the thrill of uncovering the smoke-blackened beams of their kitchen after removing layers of plaster and paint.
Hints on making the Christmas decorations are also freely shared. Herbs simmering on the stove add their fragrance to the atmosphere of hospitality.
The 60 members of the Community Association in this town with a population of 212, give or take a couple, have developed skills to rival Colonial Williamsburg in constructing orange and grapefruit cones or "Hogarth curves" from holly and fruit, wrapping banisters with swags of greens and even successfully defying gravity by making nuts and fruits stick to boxwood wreaths well past Christmas.
"We spend what it takes to make the house beautiful and hope we make it up in ticket sales," says tour volunteer Sue Ulland. The result is one of the finest Christmas displays any colonial child could dream of -- and many a modern child, too.
The tour takes place Saturday, December 14, from 1 to 7, with candle lighting after 3. Tickets are $8 or $2 per house, and may be purchased at the Old Stone School at the corner of Routes 9 and 690.
Handmade Christmas crafts will be sold in the Old Stone School and a light lunch served at the Hillsboro United Methodist Church by the women of the church.
HILLSBORO is about an hour's drive from the Beltway. Take Route 7 through Leesburg then take Route 9 north to Hillsboro. For more information, call 703/777-0519. WINCHESTER
The Preservation of Historic Winchester group uses its annual house tour to encourage people to buy and renovate some of the town's fine 18th-. It's a fixer-upper's dream come true. In one short afternoon you can progress from a classic handyman's special -- a charming chicken coop/barn with "great potential" -- right through to a fully renovated and decorated Victorian house, every detail completed by the owners themselves, down to the last hand- finished piece of bric-a-brac.
It takes all the Christian charity you can muster to love the owners of the showcase Victorian with the same ardor as the poor fellow starting out with the barn, but then it's Christmas and good cheer abounds. Besides, there are several lovely places to admire at the in-between stages of renovation.
Two doors down from the barn is a cabin built in 1840 with logs recycled from a razed building. Simple greenery enhances the rustic beauty of the cabin's 150-year-old woodwork, handhewn beams and log walls. Up the street, John Weissenberger, who handcrafts Windsor chairs in his cozy backyard shop, put the last coat of paint on his compact 1846 clapboard home just before the Christmas greens arrived. The tree is hung with his wife Joan's heirloom German and Czech Christmas ornaments. Also on the tour are two small renovated office buildings, five antique shops and a little 1860 brick house that will be furnished by two Winchester shops.
And be sure not to miss the gorgeous Victorian. Owners JoAnn and Brian Evans' home is a glorious example of Victorian "controlled clutter" set against a background of jewel- colored walls, draperies and upholstery. Their Christmas tree is hung with handmade lace ornaments and handpainted cornucopias.
The Evans will display the "before" and "after" pictures of their house, evidence that hard work and imagination can indeed turn a sow's ear into a silk purse -- or perhaps even a chicken coop into a castle.
The tour is Sunday, December 15, from 1 to 6. Tickets are $7.50 for adults, $3 for children, and may be purchased at the Knights of Columbus Hall at 519 South Cameron Street where lanterns mark the tour route. Spiced cider and cookies will be served in the hall, where visitors may buy fresh greens and baked goods.
WINCHESTER is about an hour and a quarter from the Beltway. Take I-66 to U.S. 50 west and follow it into Winchester where you turn right on Cameron Street. For more information, call 703/667-3577.