The Magic of Christmas Traditions

By Brad McEwen

As local temperatures continue their downward plunge and plumes of smoke escape area chimneys, there’s just no denying the Christmas season is finally in full swing. Throughout Albany houses sparkle with twinkling lights and festive decorations, while shoppers, hurrying to find their loved ones that perfect gift are greeted by the familiar jingle of the Salvation Army bells as volunteers work to make sure everyone has a happy holiday.

There really is nothing quite like this time of the year when happiness and carols fill the air and what my friend Terri Christian calls “the magic of Christmas,” begins to take hold.

Because that Christmas magic has always had such a powerful sway on me, as well as countless other Southwest Georgia residents, I thought it might be fun with this week’s Beyond the Bank to delve a little deeper into some of the things that make the holiday of giving such an important part in the lives of so many people, including the folks here at AB&T

While the colleagues I spoke with all shared different reasons for why the holiday means so much to them, there was undoubtedly a few common threads we all share in common, with none being more cherished than the importance of being with family and partaking in those special traditions that set the Christmas holiday apart and create memories that last a lifetime.

Although some of the traditions have changed over the years, family is the dominating theme of the holiday for Senior Vice President Matt Rushton, who shared that visiting with family and close friends has been a hallmark of Christmas since he was a child.

“I would say my fondest childhood memory for years is that for 15 years growing up we were always at the candlelight service at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Albany,” said Matt with a wide smile. “All my cousins that are all around, everybody, would come back to Albany and we would always go to the candlelight services at our church. My dad has three sisters and they all have large extended families, and we would end up with 25 of us, 30 of us, showing up at First Prez for the candlelight service. Those are definitely fond memories.

“You know back then it was a pain in the butt on Christmas Eve to have to get dressed up when you wanted to be playing with your cousins and having a big time, but looking back on it now those were pretty special times.”

With all those cousins having grown up and started their own families, Matt said the extended crew doesn’t gather for that candlelight service anymore, but that it’s okay because he and his wife Casey keep the spirit of that tradition alive with their three children.

“A lot of (the family) still comes here, but everybody’s got different church homes now,” he said. “But now I enjoy watching my kids experience that exact same thing at First Methodist for our candlelight service with their family and kind of repeating that whole tradition again.

“I want them to have the same fond memories when they’re this age and say, ‘that’s why mom and dad went through such endeavors.”

Even though the traditions have changed and some new ones have been added—like family elves Freddy and Fredda coming to visit each year—Matt said the constant will always be the experiences shared with family.

“It’s not the gifts, it’s not the thing I got for Christmas one year, it’s the experience that the season brings on,” he said. “We absolutely get fired up about Christmas.”

Changing traditions was also a theme during my conversation with bank President and CEO Luke Flatt, who shared what Christmas was like for him growing up in Americus and how it has evolved over the years.

“Christmas has always been special to me,” said Luke, who emphasized that his earliest memories revolve around close friends and family. “I never knew my grandmother, my maternal grandmother, but I was really close to my maternal grandfather, so I always enjoyed being around him and being with my parents and my brother at that time of the year.

“And we always had friends over. My family had a number of close family friends and we always tended to gather as a group, so that was always fun.

“Usually my brother and I would wake up early—he always accused me of waking him up, but it was never that way, he was the one that woke me up—we’d check out Santa before it was light outside and then as soon as the sun came up, it seemed like we were off to the neighbors to see what they got. By lunchtime all the children had made the rounds and were worn out and ready to go to sleep. That’s one memory I have of childhood.”

Like all parents though, Luke’s precious memories of boyhood Christmases are now joined by equally fond memories of celebrating the holiday with his wife Susan and their two daughters Caty and Rebecca.

“Since Susan and I have been married, and really since our girls were born, we’ve established our own traditions,” Luke explained. “When the girls were small, when they were old enough to begin to understand what Santa was all about, we made it a point to be home on Christmas Eve. We’d always go to church and got to communion on Christmas Eve and then we’d come home.”

“We'd wake up Christmas morning, and it'd be just the four of us, Susan and Caty and Rebecca and myself, and we would turn on the Christmas music, enjoy Santa, and Susan always has a certain breakfast casserole she makes on Christmas morning. And we usually have cinnamon rolls, which we rarely have during the year, and it's just those special times, and special memories.”

Eventually that close family tradition grew to include others, primarily Luke’s childhood friend and college roommate Jimmy Anderson and his wife Lynne who started visiting the Flatts every year.

“They came and spent time with us Christmas Eve,” Luke said. “We cooked something on the grill and the girls just enjoyed them being there because the girls had gotten to know the both of them through the years and so that became a tradition.

“So in terms of the most recent tradition, every Christmas Eve, Jimmy and Lynne have come. And then we included other people, people who we were friends with before, when I was growing up in Americus. And then we included people from Albany that we’ve become friends with—not always the same people every Christmas Eve, but Jimmy and Lynne have always been the constant.”

Because of Luke’s strong belief that children should wake up at home on Christmas morning, however, he and Susan won’t get to enjoy that particular tradition this year as they will now be travelling to spend time with their daughters and their families.

“This year is going to be the first year that we're not doing that because this year, we'll start a new tradition where Susan and I will be traveling,” Luke said. “Our girls and their little girls are going to be home in their respective homes for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and that's the way it should be. I believe that's the way it should be. You need to be home for Christmas, and so Susan and I will go visit them.”

Another change for the Flatts this year will be the fact that travelling will prevent them from attending the Christmas Eve church service at their home church, Porterfield Memorial United Methodist, which has always been something important to Luke, going back to his childhood.

“I remember going to church to hear the Christmas cantata; it was always performed at my church,” he said. “I didn't look forward to it so much then because it took me away from playing, but now I think about the significance of that and the enjoyment.

“The church has always been a central part of our tradition. We try to attend the events that the church has to celebrate the Christmas season and Christ's birth, and that's important to us.”

Worshipping and celebrating the birth of Christ is also an important part of the holiday season for Main Office Customer Service Representative Janice Knight, who takes great pride in the fact that when growing up her parents and grandparents always emphasized the importance of the “true meaning of Christmas.”

“Christ in Christmas was instilled in me by my parents, grandparents and family through Bible reading, music and traditions,” she told me. “It is my Christmas wish that my husband and I have instilled in our children and grandchildren the true meaning of Christmas. Jesus is the reason for the season!”

In addition to keeping a strong focus on her faith at Christmas, Janice said the holiday is also a time to celebrate with family and reflect on some of the traditions and memories that she holds dear.

“To me Christmas is about the love of my Savior, family and friends,” she said. “I have fond memories of the gathering of family and friends. Both my parents came from large families, so there was always fun fellowship, music and lots of food.

“The tradition of baking of cakes, pies, cookies and candies filled our home with wonderful smells. I remember the first Christmas my husband and I had together when we first started dating. He was in awe of the amount of Christmas goodies that covered our table. After our marriage I have always cooked lots of goodies for our family.”

Janice also carries another precious memory of childhood with her every holiday season by continuing to wear a special Christmas gift her brother got for her when they were children.

“The giving of lots of gifts was not a real emphasis in our Christmas celebration, (but) I do cherish one memory of my brother being four or five years old,” Janice explained. “We had saved some of our allowance each week and did our shopping at the local five and dime. He came and told me he had all his gifts except one that cost fifty cents. He had a dime left and needed me to give him the fifty cents. To my surprise I bought my own gift. He always looked forward to watching ‘Rudolph’ and had picked out a reindeer pin, which I have worn yearly for 50-plus years.

“It is not the number or the cost of the gift, but the thoughtfulness and love behind the giving.”

The importance of giving and honoring the true spirit of Christmas is also important to Loan Assistant Charlene Parker who says that’s always been an emphasis for her family during the holiday season.

“Every year, before we open our gifts, my dad reads the Christmas story from Luke 2 to remind us all the true meaning of Christmas,” she said. “It is not about gifts, it’s about the birth of Jesus.

“We have another tradition of buying gifts for Toys for Tots and also Operation Christmas Child, to teach my kids that it is important to give to others who may not receive anything at all if we don’t get them something.”

Just as important as instilling those important lessons and staying connected to the meaning of Christmas, Charlene added that simply spending time with her family is at the core of her Christmas memories, as evidenced by a recent holiday memory that stands out.

“If I had to pick a favorite Christmas memory, it would be that of a few years ago,” she shared. “My sisters and our families got together and spent time at my parent’s house. After supper and a couple of intense card and board games, all the kids laid on a pallet on the floor and we all watched ‘Elf.’ After the little ones drifted off to sleep, my sisters and I helped my mom fill the stockings with goodies while the fellas put together a few of the bigger items.

“Just sharing that time with my family was very special to me.”

Joining with family is also a Christmas highlight for Main Office Teller Zach Reese, who said gathering with his large family has always been a constant throughout the holiday season.

“Christmas really starts on Thanksgiving for us,” he said. “I have a large family on both sides of my family. My mom’s one of 10 and my dad’s one of eight.

“At Thanksgiving we go over to my Uncle Mark’s house, on my dad’s side, and we eat Thanksgiving dinner and visit with everybody. Then because our family is so large, we just draw individual names to get Christmas presents.

“Then we go over to my Uncle Randy’s house on Christmas Eve night and we exchange gifts and eat dinner. And when I was growing up as a kid, my Uncle Bobby would dress up as Santa Claus and let all of us sit on his lap and get a little something that he would get everybody. That was really cool to me as a kid.”

Getting to spend that time with family also informs what Zach says is his absolute favorite Christmas memory.

“All of my grandparents have passed away and the year before my Grandma Reese passed away—and this is the first time I remember her doing it—she sat down all my 20, 30 cousins that I have, and she sat down in a chair and she read the Christmas story out of the Bible to us,” Zach said with a smile. “I remember thinking that I had to remember this because it was going to be a special memory I can share with my kids. It just so happened that that was the last year she was alive on Christmas.

“My grandma, she was this soft-spoken lady. She loved Christmas. Their ceiling was about 12 foot tall and they’d have a 14 foot tree. And she’d have the whole place decorated and I just never understood how she didn’t freak out with all the, like I said, 20, 30 little kids running around screaming at the top of their lungs.

“She was the sweetest lady I ever met and I miss her a lot.”

The notion of having to adjust Christmas traditions after family members pass on was also something Terri referenced, saying that while the loss of her parent’s generation has meant a change, it’s also motivated her immediate family to develop new traditions to share with their children.

“It has changed a little bit for us,” Terri said of how she and husband Carlton now celebrate the holiday. “We used to have these big Christmases where you get all the family together, but as you get older, you’re going to lose family members and some of those are major players. Where we used to go, we no longer go there because my mom and dad have passed away. So, we had to come up with something different for Christmas.

“One of the traditions that we do now and I love that we do this is—the only thing that can go in the stockings, has to come from the Dollar Tree.

“The challenge is to go to the Dollar Tree and find something in that store that you know your mom, dad, sister, brother needs. Then we try to figure out, once we get the stockings stuffed and we sit down on Christmas Eve, ‘who could have given me this?’ It’s just fun and inexpensive. At a certain age we have everything we need, so we try to make it a little bit different and fun and inexpensive at the same time.”

Although times have changed slightly as she’s gotten older and her family has expanded, Lee County Teller Angela Meriweather said at least one of her favorite holiday traditions has continued through the years and she looks forward to it even more than ever.

“The tradition that I cherish most at Christmas and means more to me now as an adult is my family’s tradition of taking long car rides to see Christmas lights,” Angela told me. “Our family has grown and expanded just a bit, but our annual event continues. Cruising the avenues and every possible neighborhood as a kid, was just the thing to heighten the holiday excitement. There were times when my parents would stop the car as we looked in awe at awesome displays and spectacular light shows. At times we would join gathered crowds or pop into a home just to say Merry Christmas. The quality of sharing simple moments gave my family such a warm sense of love and bonding which we still have today.

“Mom always reaches out to us with that expected invitation to get together for this annual event. And the moment wouldn’t be the same either without her popping popcorn, making old-fashion hot chocolate with marshmallows or stopping for an ice cream cone to enjoy the ride.”

Like Angela food has always played an important role in the Christmas celebrations of Vice President Leslie Gilliam, who shared that some of her fondest memories center around gathering with loved ones on Christmas Eve to enjoy a traditional meal.

“Growing up Christmas Eve was a night steeped in tradition in my family,” Leslie said. “The evening was always spent with family and friends over a meal of lasagna and I’m not sure where that came from; we’re not Italian.

“Then after we would view the Christmas lights around town before attending midnight mass.”

Leslie said that while the traditional meal of lasagna has now become beef tenderloin, her family still enjoys another tradition each year.

“We were allowed to open one and only one, present on Christmas Eve and every year, EVERY year it was Christmas pajamas,” she said with a laugh. “And guess what? My kids get Christmas pajamas to open on Christmas Eve too.”

Personally I had to chuckle a bit when Leslie shared a bit about her favorite holiday traditions because they aren’t much different than those I celebrated as child. Although we didn’t attend midnight mass, we did spend every Christmas Eve in downtown Albany at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at the late night service.

After fellowship with our church family over piping hot cups of cocoa we’d head home to get ready for Santa’s arrival. Like Leslie we were allowed one gift each Christmas Eve and while it was not always a new pair of PJs, it was always something comfy we could wear while opening presents Christmas morning.

When the present opening marathon was over—my folks literally wrapped every single thing in each stocking—seriously even things like packs of gum or chap stick—we’d relax until my mother would serve the traditional Yankee Christmas meal of standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding.

While my traditions have changed following the death of my father and the start of my own family, it fills my heart with pride that my children now get to join me at my mother’s house for delicious slice of Christmas beef.

Like me, the mere thought of Christmas quickly conjures certain sights and smells for Senior Vice President Wayne Whitfield, who shared that despite changes to the family traditions, the holiday still invokes warm feelings and clear, happy memories.

“As I think back about Christmas and a kid growing up in the late 40s and early 50s it brings back memories of big strings of multi-colored lights and putting icicles on the tree. And just the smell of the Christmas tree. And of course the anticipation of Santa coming. So I guess it was pretty traditional.”

While he cherishes those early Christmas memories, including the year Santa brought him his first bicycle, Wayne said he also delights in the newer holiday traditions that were started after he married his wife Lynne and started his own family.

“Lynne always wanted to get the biggest tree the room could hold,” said Wayne with a wide smile. “We always had a debate about what size tree we would buy. Then (daughter) Ashley came along and she started dating Frank and I remember they used to laugh at us because every year we would go to buy a Christmas tree and we’d have the same debate—I call it a debate, it was probably an argument—about how big a Christmas tree we ought to buy—whether it would be a nine foot tree, which we’d have to cut the top out of to get the star on top of it, or whether it would be a seven foot tree that fit into the room without having to cut it down.

“They would go shopping with us and laugh at us as we went through that process. Of course we always wound up buying the nine foot tree and cutting the stem off the bottom of it and cutting off the top it would up being a seven foot tree. But when it went in the house it was a nine foot tree.”

Wayne said that annual ritual of tree shopping with Ashley and her husband eventually ran its course, but as is the case for most parents it simply gave way to new, equally cherished traditions.

“That tradition really lasted until the grandchildren were born,” Wayne explained. “When they were born it became less about the Christmas tree at our house and more about Christmas at their house.

“We started a tradition then that every Christmas we’d go to their house on Christmas Eve and we’d spend the night with them. We’re all there Christmas morning when they get up for Christmas. That started with Jackson and Wyatt, then Mallory.”

Interestingly Wayne shared that he recently had some concern that the new tradition of staying over with Ashley and her family might be coming to an end, but he said his oldest grandson Jackson set his mind at ease.

“Last Christmas, Jackson was 16, or about to be 16,” Wayne said. “We said, ‘you know guys, do we still need to spend the night?’ Jackson said, ‘papa, it just wouldn’t be Christmas if y’all didn’t come spend the night.’

“So that’s been our tradition ever since. We spend the night with them, be there Christmas morning, have Christmas lunch with them, and then do our thing the rest of the day.”

It really was wonderful to listen to all of my friends and colleagues share their memories of Christmas and offer their thoughts on this special holiday. While the traditions might differ and evolve over the years, the central wonder of Christmas remains unchanged.

Like Terri and so many others pointed out, Christmas—when we give freely of ourselves and cherish the most important parts of life—truly is magical and its spell can be felt throughout the community.

It might seem cliché but like the words in that famous holiday tune, Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the time of the year and I wish from the bottom of my heart that all of my friends and neighbors in Southwest Georgia have the merriest of Christmases and see all their holiday wishes come true.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen