"In a way, Christmas is going back to when my parents were my parents."

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CHRISTMAS PRESENT is born of all our Christmases past. A big box of memories all tied up with a bow waiting to be opened, to come to life one more time. When architect Tyler Engle opens his each year, his entire life spills out before him.

“I’m an absolute modernist,” he says, standing in the Midcentury modern living room of his Seward Park home. “But at Christmas I’m total kitsch and nostalgia.”

He nods toward the coffee table. “That Santa Claus puzzle? I got that when I was a little kid. Every year I would take it apart and put it together. I got so I memorized it.”

A few steps away is another story. Engle jangles a set of sleigh bells off the window sill.

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“My grandmother married a pharmacist in Duluth. In the winter he delivered drugs by sleigh. These were the sleigh bells. My father would bring them in and rattle them on Christmas morning as if Santa had come.”

Engle gives them an extra shake. He can’t help himself.

“My dad bought a series of lots on Mercer Island, and we lived in the woods. He sold them off to pay for things like college. So I spent a lot of time building treehouses.” This explains his choice of occupation. Engle goes to the tree and holds up a house hanging there. It is made of cardboard and covered in sparkles.

“My grandfather gave this to my father when he was 5, 81 years ago. When I was 5 my dad gave me this church, in the 1960s.

“In a way, Christmas is going back to when my parents were my parents,” says the architect, 52, his parents now in assisted-living housing. “When my father walked in here last year he said, ‘My house.’

“This is why I do it.”

Engle pulls out a couple of Santa ornaments hanging on the tree.

“I made those in Cub Scouts. They’re made out of dough.” This makes him reflective.

“There was something about the 1960s that was more magical then the ’70s, especially in Seattle with the failure of the SST. The 1960s were more cheerful.”

Engle’s faithful dog, Buddy, has an enthusiastic go at a stuffed duck in front of the fireplace. A felt stocking stitched with a snowman, a Christmas tree, a train and a Teddy hangs nearby. “My grandmother made that for me. She died before I was born.”

With that, Engle hops up, returns to the tree, pulls up another ornament. Filigreed and flat.

“Every year my aunt, who’s no longer alive, sent me an ornament that she could put in an envelope.

“It’s these little things; all sorts of sweet things from my family.” Memories curl through the air like smoke.

These days, this millennium, the holidays are about cooking, Engle hosting his parents and family at his own place. He sets the table with the family silver and china.

“My mother sat down at the table and she started to cry, because it was all the china her mother bought as her dowry in New York and London.

“So many stories.”

Rebecca Teagarden writes about architecture and design for Pacific Northwest magazine. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.

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