Something in the air
By Stacee Sledge
Whatcom Magazine, December 2007

Christmas takes flight for aviation buffs

Sue Henderson and Bill Stoelt have taken the theme Christmas tree to new heights.

Perched on their home’s open second-floor walkway, visible from the front entry, is what the couple dubs their “airplane” tree. Its mass of aviation-themed ornaments reflects their love of flying — and their home’s location alongside a small airstrip.

That airstrip gets a good deal of use from Bill’s 1964 Beechcraft Bonanza, a gleaming red and cream beauty. The airplane is what drew the couple to Lynden. Both grew up in Seattle and lived in Mukilteo for eight years before moving north.

The couple has been together for almost 17 years and married since 2000. “Neither one of us was ever going to get married again,” Sue, 64, says with a laugh, “until, apparently, we’d lived together for nine years.”

“We always kept flying up here,” says Bill, 54. They would stroll around downtown, marveling at its quaint charm, or lunch at Homestead Farms Golf Resort after Bill took in a game of golf.

Sue retired from nursing in January 2003, while Bill retired the following February from the Northshore School District, where he worked as a purchaser. They were ready to take flight to Lynden.

“We had Jim Stewart build the house to the roof, and then we contracted the rest,” says Sue. In January of 2004, they moved in.

 Now, a flight to Friday Harbor for an impromptu lunch takes a scant 15 minutes; Boeing Field is just 40 minutes away. “We might say, ‘Let’s go to Bremerton or the Oregon Coast,’” says Bill. “It takes maybe an hour and a half to the Oregon Coast from here.”

 But further-flung destinations are where Sue finds most of her airplane tree finery. “We go to the Reno Air Races a lot and airplane conventions in Georgia, San Antonia and Arizona,” says Sue. “And then I just pick up an airplane for the Christmas tree.”

Crowning the artificial tree is Sue’s traditional Saint Nick topper, long used on the larger family tree downstairs. With a small airplane tucked into his sack, the jolly old elf makes the perfect pinnacle for the theme tree.

Downstairs, a whimsical Santa Claus-commandeered airplane circles the dining room table, suspended on a thin wire from the chandelier. It’s a charmer, but that’s where the airplane theme ends, as a more traditional Christmas spirit reigns in every festively festooned downstairs room.

Included in the 2006 Bethany Christian Services annual Christmas Homes Tour, the 3,400-square foot home — a mix of Cape Cod, Craftsman and traditional architecture — radiates holiday spirit in every room. Sue’s part-time job at Grandiflora Home and Garden helped her hone her skills at devising touches of elegance and whimsy throughout.

The kitchen displays a plethora of Christmas-themed décor: a nestling of nutcrackers from Sue’s sister, antique bobble-head ornaments that belonged to Sue’s ex-husband’s mother, and cookie jars, candles, and salt and pepper shakers from various friends.

Two long, thin Christmas stockings, handmade by Sue’s grandmother decades ago, hang along the kitchen-facing side of a three-sided, glass-enclosed fireplace that opens onto the kitchen, dining room and living room. Sue’s uncle’s name was William, and she hangs his stocking for Bill.

Wrapped gift boxes adorn the top of the fireplace, enveloped in colorful papers and topped with elaborate hand-tied bows.

In preparing for the tour, Sue wanted holiday touches in every room — but didn’t want to go overboard. “When it came to having people come through the house, I had spaces where I didn’t want to overdo. I thought I should just use stuff I have.” And she did, with a creative eye that stretched seemingly everyday items into holiday haberdashery.

In the dining room she grouped her late father’s mandolin and violin, her grandfather’s accordion, Bill’s trumpet and a neighbor’s harp around an open book illustrating a music-filled holiday scene. A cut crystal bowl cradles silver ornaments in the master bedroom, while red tapered candles of varying heights are group atop a hallway table.

A friend and neighbor who made all the home’s pillows created sleeves that are simply slipped on to give a touch of red to pillows on an entryway bench.

Laden in ornaments — some made by Sue, some by friends, and many purchased on vacations abroad — a 7½-foot tall noble fir in the living room epitomizes a traditional Christmas tree. Dolls, bears, toy trains, and children’s books tucked in the branches harken back to the childhood awe of Christmas morning.

I use yellow lights instead of white, because they look like candlelight,” says Sue. “It’s a softer look.”

A tabletop tree in Sue’s den glimmers with all the gold ornaments sorted out of her collection. In a bath across the hall, an even smaller tree drips with ice-like crystal ornaments entwined with strings of Sue’s mother’s pearls. Gold-papered packages rest under the tree, garnished with sparkling brooches that also belonged to Sue’s mother. A collection of wee Swarovski crystal musical instruments are displayed on a chest next to the tiny tree.

It’s no surprise that someone who adores decorating for the season has a deep love of the accompanying family traditions and gatherings. Sue’s daughters Lisa and Lara live in Western Washington with their families, while her son Mike and his family call Austin, Texas home. 

“In the past, I always had Christmas breakfast with cinnamon rolls,” says Sue. “All the kids and grandkids would come. We’d have presents piled high and I’d insist we open them, all around, one at a time. That was our Christmas for years, and I just loved it.”

But the male contingent tired of the drawn-out opening ceremony. “The fellas wanted to watch football,” says Sue with a smile. “Bill would disappear and watch too, and he’s not even a football fan.”

The clan would then move onto another house for an even bigger Christmas celebration. In recent years, a change of tradition has taken place.

“My Aunt Sheelah, who was a dear and wise friend, said Christmas is more a woman’s thing, that it’s really the women who like to do all this.” The family now has a luncheon on the Saturday before Christmas for the kids and all those who still want the full-on gift-unwrapping extravaganza. The young ones open their gifts one at a time, while the adults do a white elephant exchange.”

Now Bill and Sue celebrate solo on Christmas morning, and then travel to family members’ homes for the rest of the holiday-related festivities.

Snuggled into the living room couch, looking up at her traditional Christmas tree with its soft lights that catch each colorful toy among its branches, Sue spies her favorite ornament. It’s a small plaque that simply reads: “Christmas brings out the child in all of us.”

“I always hang that up front, because that’s what I think.” She lets out a contented sigh as her eyes travel around the comfortable room. “Life is good.”

Stacee Sledge is a Bellingham freelance writer.

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