Lisa Potts: Every day is Christmas

wib christmasFor Lisa Potts, Christmas isn’t just a holiday — it’s a way of life. Potts owns Nancy Tut’s Christmas Shop in Dillsboro, an occupation that means she spends every day surrounded by Christmas paraphernalia of all sorts.

The best things come in the smallest packages

coverLooking up at the old chimney, William “Gene” Gibson still wonders how Santa Claus ever managed to fit in it.

“I never could figure how’d he come down through there and not get all covered in black,” the 87-year-old chuckled.

Christmas on the Chimney: Claus gears up for Christmas, spreads the joy of climbing

out frIt was still a couple weeks till Christmas, but Santa Claus already had his boots shined and suit cleaned in preparation for the second most important day of the year — his annual practice run at Chimney Rock State Park. 

“Getting to practice here at Chimney Rock, I find the first chimneys I have to go down [on Christmas Eve] are a lot smoother,” explained Claus, who during his off-duty months works as a climbing guide with Fox Mountain Guides under the name Travis Weil. 

Lonely this Christmas? Hire an old-time hermit

op hermitSerendipity: an aptitude for making significant discoveries by accident.

I have always loved that word, and I have had numerous serendipity moments. I would like to tell you about the one that happened today. I have been bemoaning the fact that I am not “a Christmas person.” Without children or family, and having the restraints of living on social security, I have come to feel left out of “the season to be jolly.” Of course, I have found that there are others who seem to be condemned to spend the holidays alone or at the Huddle House.

A Santa for all occasions

art frBy Colby Dunn • Correspondent

This time of year, there’s a Santa around every corner. There’s the jolly Santa flying around in Coke commercials, the harassed-looking Santa on his mall throne, the grandfatherly, rosy-cheeked Santa in “Miracle on 34th Street,” but in Alane Bartnik’s workshop, the Santas of the past come to life. 

Bartnik, the owner and artist behind Nonna’s Santas, handcrafts each of her Santas after a different era, complete with painstaking research into the clothes, style and most importantly, toys from that era. It’s not just their outfits and accessories that she makes by hand, but each Santa’s face is hand molded, each with his own personal expression. 

Christmas ‘peace’ in the land of the Holy One

op frDoug Wingeier • Columnist

Some years back I spent the Christmas season in the Land of the Holy One. (It is not the land that is holy, but the One who was born, lived, died, and rose there.) This was one of my several sojourns in Israel/Palestine over the years. My strongest impression at that time (and conditions have only gotten worse since) was of the oppression my Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters — along with their Muslim neighbors — were enduring under the Israeli occupation. I was struck with how similar this was to the Roman oppression of local inhabitants in the time of Jesus.

Holiday Roundup: Christmas comes to Appalachia

art frAs the temperatures drop in Western North Carolina, the fun only heats up. The holiday season here is filled with events and activities aimed at celebrating the best way we know how — with friends, family and visitors alike.

Families can partake in wagon rides, iceless skating, craft sales and art demonstrations, all the while enjoying authentic mountain music, clogging and parades throughout several downtowns. These are just some of the activities happening around the region, with each and every date, time and place found within this section.

Over the top and proud of it: Hazelwood neighbors light up a neighborhood to celebrate the season

Want to see, for free, one of the best examples of folk art to be found in Western North Carolina? Then head to the humble Hazelwood community in Haywood County and view what some of the residents living there have created using simple Christmas lights and inexpensive or homemade decorations.

This is truly art from the heart.

Thousands, literally thousands, if not actually millions, of lights festoon the trees and decorate the small former mill houses and the trailers that line Hyatt Street. Here, after dusk — in a blatant, unapologetic display of keeping-up-with-the-neighbors — one finds lit candy canes, Santas, reindeer, stars and more. Much more, starting sometime late in October until whenever the residents decide it’s time to take them down.

There are so many decorations per house that most of the people who participate in this volunteer neighborhood extravaganza are forced to buy or build individual sheds just to store their Christmas supplies.

There is a story bandied about Haywood County that the extravagant Christmas lights display on Hyatt Street started with a neighborhood competition gone mad. That, however, is not true. Though there was, indeed, at one time community Christmas lights competitions in this region, including here in Hazelwood.

The Christmas lights gala on Hyatt Street started simply enough, and this is how: more than two decades ago, some of Ronald and Cecile Fish’s then-neighbors decided to move to Pennsylvania. They gave Ronald and Cecile Fish two strings of Christmas lights rather than pack them.

From a single acorn grows a mighty oak.

Ronald Fish put up those two strings of Christmas lights, and something deep inside him grew three sizes that day. The next year, he put up more lights. Then more, and more each year, and Ronald Fish soon found the strength of 10 men, plus two, and hung lights from the house, the trees, the fence; he built more decorations, added reindeer and Santas and American flags and more, much more. Ronald Fish couldn’t stop and to this day he is still adding lights to his collection.

“I counted them one time, some years ago, and it was something over 100 strings — that’s 10,000 to 20,000 lights,” he said.

There’s a lot more than that in the Fish yard now, too many to count.

Down the street a few houses away, Ronnie Cook one Christmas season noticed the Fish yard aglow. Cook was struck by a wonderful, awful, idea: he would have more lights than his good friend Fish. He began stringing lights on trees, on his house, down the sidewalk, up the shed; he couldn’t stop and to this day he, like Fish, is still adding to his Christmas lights collection.

Across the street from Ronald Fish and a mere two houses or so from Cook, Juan and Rosy Camacho grew envious, too, of their neighbors’ yards and houses. Their mouths hung open a moment or two, until they knew what to do and so they ceased crying, “Boo Hoo.”

The Camachos started visiting box stores, thrift stores and more. They bought cases, perhaps even truckloads, of Christmas lights, and decorated their home and yard, too.

“It’s a competition thing,” Rosy Comacho freely admitted.

Other residents joined in. Though a few houses here on Hyatt Street are determinedly undecorated and dark. Perhaps in protest, or perhaps in sheer surrender to the virtuosity displayed by those who are decorating for the season.

The electric bills for these Hazelwood residents who do participate in this Christmas light festooning are insane. Cook’s jumps about $150 a month, the Camachos’ bill goes up at least $50 (they just started in the game about six years ago). And Ronald and Cecile Fish admit to their bill doubling, though they demurely shy away from saying what that electric cost is before the doubling.

One wouldn’t, after all, want to appear to brag over one’s neighbors.

The story of the Christmas tree and the wife

Another Christmas tragedy appeared on the horizon with the arrival of our Christmas tree. I have often thought the holiday season would best begin if it didn’t start with this most terrifying event. I don’t believe in the recreational use of drugs but would condone occasional consumption prior to this annual ordeal.  

First comes the tree selection. Living in an area where firs are grown commercially, one would think we were one up on people residing in Orlando or Pittsburgh. The opposite is true; more choices more problems. My wife, perfectionist that she is, won’t allow anything but a flawlessly shaped cone to enter the house. No holes, extra branches, twisted limbs or a trunk that is anything but 180 degrees vertical. I have finally learned how to avoid this particular problem. I have a best friend deliver one from his Christmas tree farm. She can’t argue with him.   

If choosing the right fir can make me reach for nitroglycerin, putting the chosen one in the stand will be the major contributing factor to my fourth bypass surgery. Christmas tree stands are much like ex-wives; they cost too much, never work, can’t do what you want them to, and never cease taking delight in seeing a grown man cry. My fondest dream is the creation of a virtual Christmas tree. One I can decorate on my computer and then laser it into the appropriate place.  

That’s another major headache — where to put the smelly, needle-dropping mess. Why don’t architects design houses that a tree will fit into? If you haven’t gone to the liquor cabinet by now, the next operation will guarantee the need for a double — putting on the lights.  

I have often wondered whose idea it was to use lights. I think it was some feminist group who love to see grown men grovel and cry. The real idiots are those men who try to use last year’s lights. I am convinced that a light grinch exists who goes from house to house beginning the day after Christmas. The same Grinch who makes fruit cakes. Somehow (s)he sneaks into basements and quietly tangles strands of lights which were carefully rolled up and, to add insult to injury, steals one bulb from each strand. Of course the man who buys new ones is no better off. I am convinced that light strands are boxed by inebriated Italian cooks. Assuming that you have them properly aligned, it is best to test them. Can you remember any time five strands of lights actually worked simultaneously?  

By now a sane person has finished off most of a fifth. The dog is hiding under the neighbor’s house, the kids are calling 911 and your wife is thinking her mother was right when she suggested computer dating or a nunnery instead of accepting your marriage proposal. About this time I usually think of converting to one of the stricter Islamic religions in hopes that it bans all such splash and glitter in its most important religious event*. Realizing that most such faiths forbid the use of alcohol I continue my rock-rolling task and commence placing the lights on the green ogre.  

Several theories exist which propound the politically correct way to string the tree. A few of the more popular ones are top down, bottom up, vertical rows, in and out and of course my favorite, helter skelter. Whichever method you choose will always result in the same problem. The last plug is on the opposite side of the tree from the electric receptacle and you don’t have another extension cord. No problem. We just move the tree from its architecturally incorrect place. Success seems just over the horizon until the lights are joyously plugged in by your youngest. Someone bought those infernal blinking lights! Time for another double.  

By now most men have retired to the opposite side of the room, taken up the fetal position and started sucking their thumbs. For the few that have made it beyond this far comes the glorious hanging of balls.  Another of nature’s great mysteries presents itself. Where did all the hangars go that you so carefully packed each ball with just 51 weeks before? It may be a genetically deformed version of the light grinch, but I truly believe that this phenomenon is something akin to the Bermuda Triangle. Enough of Christmas tree balls. They are a novel for another time. Let it be said that everything from a golf shoe to a Taco Bell Chihuahua is hung from our fir. Now the bottle is empty and a second cracked open.

Just three more tasks: tinsel, star and tree skirt. As many theories abound concerning appropriate tinsel hanging as light placement. Once again you have the single strand placement advocates, the several at a time underhand toss people, and the two-handed glob throwing radicals. Of course one has to consider whether to implement the “little is better theory” or the “more the merrier plan.” No matter what the choice, one can be assured most of this rejected aluminum foil will end up in the floor and will be around when the Easter bunny comes. Hmm. I had never thought how much tinsel looks like that colored stuff put in Easter baskets.   

The crowning moment has now come; the star. Some prefer a lighted version, but by now my tree is violating all fire codes so the plain star is chosen. If everything has proceeded accordingly I have had about two shots of the second bottle and am convinced that I can stand one legged on a barstool while holding the wall and perfectly place the real symbol of Christmas. I won’t bore you with the details. As I stumble to my feet and pick up the chair, my wife dryly comments that the tree looks cute lying on the floor and now she won’t have to worry about the kids pulling it over on themselves.   

After carefully wiring the tree to the mantle, an overhead light and a screw placed in the wall, my wife puts the skirt under the tree. Tree skirts serve no apparent function other than to create havoc every time you need to water the damn tree. I believe mothers hand these down to daughters as a curse.  My thinking is that old white sheets are best as long as they haven’t been used too often as dropcloths for home painting projects.  (Another story for another time.)

Eureka! A skirt! If only someone had told me that Christmas trees are female. Next year will be different. First thing I’m going to do is burn my friend’s Christmas tree farm.  

•••

Post Script. A typical Monday at the office has just ended. I sit on the couch with a glass of wine, turn on my computer and double click the AOL button. She is running around the house trying to ready for our Christmas party just three days away. Supper is in the crockpot. Her best friend drops in for a quick drink. Of course a tree viewing is in order. From across the room I watch as lights are plugged in. A blood curdling yell disgorges from my wife’s mouth: “The lights won’t work.”   

These words immediately send cold chills running down my spine. I believe that no other phrase could evoke the fear and trepidation that I begin to experience. “Please God, let the lights come on.” Genesis and the story of the first days of the world came to mind. Once again I quietly and fervently pray that He would let there be light. Alas, such was not the case.

As fate would have it, my wife’s younger sister arrives on the scene. You know her. The one who works at the Christmas shop. She of Christmas tree knowledge and the patience of Job. (I often wonder if they are truly of the same gene pool.) A long explanation of never putting more than three strands on one switch, never mixing and matching different lights and, of all things, how fuses work is mockingly given and contritely received.  

I have always considered myself a quick learner. It only takes driving a screwdriver into two knuckles to decide that a $3.95 set of lights was not worth the effort to repair. The unthinkable replacement of the dead set is a better fate. Into the tree I go. I tell my wife where my last will and testament is and that I have signed a donor card and a living will.

Three minutes later, with evergreen scratches covering my arms, needles in my mouth and sap covering my hands, I escape the tree with the dead strand. No rest for the weary though. A quick survey of the tree by my lovely is made. From out of no where she produces the dreaded replacement set.  Reminding her of my burial requests I dive back into the forest.    

I have never believed in good or bad fortune, but somehow my lucky light must have been shining on this tree. In less than two minutes I replace the darkened set and am sitting on the floor with plug in hand. I think to myself, maybe I shouldn’t press my luck. What if I plug it in and nothing but a black hole appears? Naw, it’s my lucky day. Quickly I insert the plug into the receptacle. Yes!! I high five the dog and the kids. God is undeservedly smiling on me. Evidently he has decided I have been punished enough for one Christmas.  

As I sit on the couch pounding out this story on my Toshiba lap top I lift my humble head and tearfully stare across the living room floor. There stands the most beautiful tree in the whole world. My wife’s Christmas tree.

•••

Post post script. It is now two years since I revealed the terrible horrors you have just read. Once again I’m sitting on the couch three days before the “Big Xmas Party”.  Lucky me — I don’t have to wander into that terrible forest again. Most people wouldn’t have gone to the extremes I did to escape this punishment. How does back surgery sound? Yes sir it works wonders.  Not suffering excruciating back pain every time you breathe is only secondary. The good news is your surgeon repeatedly telling you in front of the lovely:   “ FOR THE NEXT MONTH DON’T LIFT ANYTHING HEAVIER THAN FIVE POUNDS, DON’T BEND, TWIST OR TURN AND USE PAIN MEDICATION AS NEEDED.”

Scheduling this surgery did take some doing. Most patients have to wait six weeks to see a doctor and then another month to get scheduled. Christmas had slipped up on me and I didn’t have this long to wait. It so happens my brother lives next door to this neurosurgeon who plays bad poker and I guess you can figure out the rest. One month after the MRI revealed a herniated disc, I was on the operating table. Some of you might think I went to extremes to avoid the tree. You haven’t heard anything yet. Next year I’m thinking of confessing to being Jack the Ripper.

It is 2011 some 12 years after the first episode in this saga and the merriest of all seasons is upon us — like a white sheet pulled over a corpse. Age does have its benefits. My lovely hasn’t required that hallowed of all hallowed icons, THE CHRISTMAS TREE, for almost 5 years. Of course each Xmas party we go to brings the sardonic “I know we don’t need a tree, but doesn’t that one look beautiful?” Saturday night almost brought a good marriage to a bad end. Fate would have it that we were invited to my friend’s house who supplied the trees for many years. A chef’s dinner was being served — at least I would die on a full stomach. We had barely pulled into the drive on Scenic Circle when it began — “Whee, look at the trees — and one is on the outside porch!” I mumbled under my breath, “if I owned a tree farm we would have one on the porch too, but I am a lawyer who has had three open heart surgeries, four stents, three hip replacements, two back surgeries, gall bladder surgery, two knee surgeries and a partridge in a damned old Christmas tree.” Fortunately the divine one didn’t hear me. The night went well enough — a good merlot makes all things merrier and Carolina won a close basketball game. As we drove down the street towards our treeless home the bell rang on the first round of a marriage ending argument — “we could move the couch, tie up the dog, move the TV and put up a little tree.” I reached for the nitro hoping that this would stop the pain — not in my chest, but in my head. She immediately fell for the ruse.  “Honey, I knew it would be too much for you. We can do without again.” And so another Christmas will pass without the need of a divorce attorney and sans tree.  

(Gavin Brown is an attorney and mayor of Waynesville.)

A Christmas without Santa? Not if these nonprofits can help it

For those who help the economically disadvantaged, the holiday season raises plenty of questions: how many people need help; will they receive enough donations; and how will they ensure every child in Western North Carolina has a present under the tree this year?

Macon, Haywood, Swain and Jackson counties have a slew of agencies that work together to see that everyone gets at a little something for the holidays — be it food, clothing or toys.

The stack of applications from families needing help during the holidays has doubled in recent years for Holiday Angel in Macon County, said JoAnn Hurst with Macon Program for Progress, which heads up Holiday Angel. Before the recession hit, workers had practically memorized the people who ask for help each year. But not any more.

“The names are new. The families are new,” Hurst said. “We don’t recognize them.”

More people still need help, and fewer people can afford to help.

“There are just a lot more people in need right now,” said Robert Cochran, director of Jackson County Department of Social Services. The agency has seen the number of food stamp recipients in the county double, he added.

The well-known Toys for Tots program, which has chapters across the region, has also noticed a decline in giving.

“As the economy has slowed down, we have to cut back, too,” said Randy Hughes, the area Toys for Tots coordinator.

In response, the nonprofit tries to give each child four items — down from eight in previous years, he said.

“There is still time to give,” Hughes added.

 

A coordinated effort

Thousands of needy families in the region will ultimately be matched up with gift givers, but making sure no one falls through the cracks — and that families aren’t double-dipping by applying for holiday assistance through more than one agency — takes massive coordination.

“It may be three or four agencies working to get that one family food to eat,” said JoAnn Hurst of Macon Program for Progress, a nonprofit agency.

Macon Program for Progress heads a multi-organizational program called Holiday Angel. For Macon County, it is the central point of connectivity between givers and receivers.

Those in need either know about the program or get referred to it by the Macon County Department of Social Services.

Collaboration among the government agencies and non profits helps them prevent people from falling through the cracks.

“I feel like we pretty well cover them,” Hurst said. “I don’t feel like we are (missing people) with as close as we are working with other agencies now.”

Families needing assistance file applications, with details about their income, their children, what they want and, more importantly, what they need. Once the organization verifies the information, the names are passed on to individuals or groups who want to sponsor one or multiple families.

Jackson County is more proactive than most when it comes to distributing the names of families in need of help during the holidays. Jackson social services taps its database of families receiving assistance, and with their permission, passes their names on to donors — without needy families having to formally apply.

One group that sponsors needy families in Jackson County is MedWest’s EMS team, which sponsors families every year by buying them gifts and supplying a meal.

A chapter of Toys for Tots in the region works with multiple agencies in Swain, Macon and Jackson counties to distribute between 14,000 and 18,000 toys this year.

The nonprofit collects the toys then passes them on to other charitable organizations to hand out and works with them to ensure people are not already receiving assistance from another organization.

“Our mission is to make sure that no child is left out,” Hughes said.

Haywood County’s Operation Christmas Love is one of many Western North Carolina programs that receives toys from Toys for Tots. It is a collaborative program run by Haywood Christian Ministries, with help from Haywood County DSS.

The program, which helps about 300 people each year, places trees bearing tags with children’s names as well as an item they want for Christmas at various locations in the county, including Belks, Walmart and Sagebrush Steakhouse in Waynesville.

“I think we have been very blessed this year,” said Jennifer Mason, who helps with Operation Christmas Love. “This far, I’ve not seen a decrease; so that’s been wonderful.”

Hughes said the nonprofit has received about the same number of applications for aid as last year despite requiring people to fill out the forms online.

While many agencies focus on giving children a happy holiday, kids are not the only ones in need during the holiday season. A number of organizations, including Mountain Projects in Haywood County, gather items for senior citizens who may rely solely on social security income.

Mountain Projects puts together boxes for senior citizens that include writing tablets, stamps, shampoos and lotions, among other things.

“Our goal is to make sure every senior has something for Christmas,” said Patsy Dowling, executive director of Mountain Projects. “Christmas is a really sad time for them.”

The nonprofit will be collecting donations for both children and seniors through Dec. 9.

While the deadline might seem a bit early, Dowling said Mountain Projects delivers the presents a week or two before Christmas to avoid snow, which could prevent their elves from distributing all their goods.

 

In need of help

There are so many ways to give during the holidays. Contact a nonprofit charity near you or your county department of social services to find out how you can help this holiday season.

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