Story of a House
All Rhodes Lead to Christmas
How Mary Rhodes and husband Bill give new meaning to “Home for the Holidays”
By Jim Dodson • Photographs by John Gessner
“Honestly, I don’t know why we do this every year,” says Mary Rhodes with an exasperated chuckle, glancing around her house. A coy smile appears. “This is just something we love doing, I suppose, kind of a tradition now.”
Unless one’s eyes deceive, this is a woman who clearly relishes everything about the Christmas season, including the annual task of decorating every room of the handsome three-bedroom family home she shares with husband, Bill, in the pasturelands south of Greensboro.
Beginning with the wreath on the door and 6-foot Santa who stands like a North Pole doorman on her stately, four-columned side porch, Christmas is everywhere you look in the form of lavishly decorated Christmas trees, ornate gingerbread houses, garlands, angels, reindeer, figurines of carolers and at least half a dozen renderings of Father Christmas, both ancient and modern. Warm shades of red dominate throughout the house from the bittersweet on the mantel to the strands of beads artfully draped on her late mama’s silver service.
An heirloom family dining room table is already set with Christmas china for waves of holiday entertaining, and the vintage Steinway grand piano — look closely and you’ll see it’s signed by Mr. Steinway himself — is simply a key staging area for choirs of carolers and snowmen, candles and bowls of candy. Even a pair of mature Christmas cacti are in radiant full bloom for the holidays.
Welcome to a joyful tradition that began in 2003, a year after the Rhodeses sold their Irving Park home and moved out to occupy and redo Mary’s childhood home on Davis Mill Road south of the city. The traditional beige brick ranch house where Mary and her two brothers, Alex and Lawrence, grew up sits on 500 acres their grandfather acquired over half a century ago in order to keep horses for his Lee Street firm, Greensboro Coal and Ice. His son, Mary’s daddy, Calvin Ross, transformed the holdings into a 300-head dairy farm, becoming the top milk producer for Flav-O-Rich Dairy.
The idea of transforming her tastefully decorated home into a living tableau of Christmas really got started when, as Mary Rhodes recounts, “friends of ours in Carlson Farms gave up hosting their annual Christmas party. Bill and I decided we would take up the party out here in the country.” With festive touches such as the several figurines that had belonged to her mother, the party was a “big hit,” Mary recalls. “I began adding to the decorations a little bit more every year. The collecting never stopped.”
Fifteen years later, the party is still going — and has grown to three different parties during the first two weeks of December.
The process begins when Bill Rhodes lays out the stored decorations on tables in the garage, allowing Mary and her longtime friend Myrna Robinson, a decorator from Southport, to work their magic piece by piece.
“Every year is a little different. We add things and move stuff around. Myrna really has lots of great ideas and sometimes we go a bit over the top,” Mary allows, “but somehow it all comes together surprisingly quickly. It looks like a lot of work but it only takes us a couple of days.”
Maybe more amazing is that Mary “Christmas” Rhodes does all of her own food preparation for the trio of fêtes that follow in quick succession beginning the second week of December . . . feasts that largely come from the Rhodeses’ bountiful veggie garden.
“The menu is a little different every year,” Mary confirms, “but I usually make a chicken-and-rice casserole with green beans, fresh corn, roasted beets and crowder peas and apple sauce made from trees right out back — everything from our summer garden. Everyone seems to love the food. I also do lots of baking — all sorts of cookies and brownies, rolls and several kinds of cakes — strawberry, chocolate, carrot and pound cakes. I just bake up a storm.”
The first of the annual gatherings is hosted for what Mary calls “our Greensboro people,” her former Irving Park neighbors and golf chums, numbering anywhere from 30 to 40
guests. Among her many social gifts, Mary is two-time women’s golf champ at Greensboro Country Club and holder of several amateur titles including a recent North Carolina State Super Senior championship. Her trophies line shelves and her daddy’s vintage desk in the study.
“The Greensboro crowd always comes on Wednesday for lunch,” she explains. “They love fresh country food. The next day, Thursday, is for our friends from over at Colonial Country Club [in Thomasville]. That crowd is about the same size, always lots of fun to be with. They seem to love the food, too.”
Finally, on Friday of the same week, the Rhodes host friends and choir members from Greensboro’s Buffalo Presbyterian Church. You do the math. More than one hundred folks, many of whom begin checking in even before Thanksgiving, just to confirm they’re on the guest list.
All of which raises a polite question: Who helps Mary Christmas with the monumental food prep and cleanup? She waves it off and laughs again.
“We have a friend named Jim Eskridge who loves to do dishes. He’s a big help. But I do most of it myself. It’s really no big deal. Like the cooking and the decorating, it’s just part of the fun.”
Husband Bill, she quickly adds, helps with the cleanup but mostly attends to the open bar in the garage, dispensing his own version of holiday spirit.
To complete the festive schedule, all Rhodes lead to the house on Davis Mill on the Saturday before Christmas when the couple hosts a family that includes five children and 10 grandchildren. A second family gathering follows on Christmas Day with the addition of two aunts in their 90s for gift-giving and Mary’s beef tenderloin.
“We do this to share our love with friends and family. It makes everyone happy. We live in such a difficult world full of bad news, but for a few days out of the year, Christmas makes everyone slow down and smile at each other,” Mary reflects. “Sharing music and good food and beautiful things reminds you of the real meaning of the holiday. It’s been a blessing in our lives.”
Which raises a final question: How long does it take Mary Christmas to undecorate her amazing home for the holidays?
“Not as long as you might think. Just a day or two. Bill helps. We’ve got it down to a pretty good routine. Everything goes back in the garage for next year.”
Here she pauses and smiles coyly again.
“That’s when we head to Sebring, Florida, for the new year and a golf tournament called the Harder Hall Ladies Invitational that I’ve played in with friends for a long time. It’s the perfect way to end the year,” she allows. “But by then I’m already thinking about next Christmas — on the lookout for something to add to our decorations!” OH
Jim Dodson — and Wendy — deck their own halls with natural decorations, vintage Santas, antique white Christmas lights
and stuffed armadillos.