One of the most treasured Christmas traditions is the Christmas tree. Winter greenery adds a celebratory touch to bleak Decembers. It took centuries for the Christmas tree to evolve into what it has become today, but as early as the 15th century, both churches and homes were decorating with holly, ivy and other greenery. In this issue, we talk to five Golden Isles families who keep those long-ago traditions alive, and create new ones too.
The Mitchells | Brett, Joy, Emmy, 17,
Oleta, 15, Case, 13, IslaMae, 11, and AstinJune, 8.
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The Mitchell family loves Christmas and decorating the family tree is one of their favorite traditions, especially when it comes to adorning it with family decorations collected as each child has grown up.
“Preschool pictures, stringing the lights – laughing and remembering all the special memories that came from each ornament,” said Joy Mitchell. “All the kids love placing the angel on top of the tree – it’s a special time together when the lights fill the room with laughter, love and joy.
“Once the tree is decorated, we read the Christmas story out of the Bible and let the Christmas season begin.”
“Our family tree in the dining room brings Brett and I the most joy each year,” she said. “When Brett and I started dating, every trip we took we always bought a Christmas ornament that represented special times together.”
The family tree now holds each of the Mitchell’s five children’s homemade ornaments, childhood keepsakes and sand dollars they have found through the years.
“Every year, we reminisce on when the kids were young and are in awe of God’s continual blessings,” Joy said.
Joy says decorating with a family of seven is “crazy fun.”
“Christmas music is on, the fireplace is going, all five kids are home and hot cocoa is being served – with extra whip cream and chocolate, of course,” she said.
Love, she said, is what makes each tree magical.
“Our family picks a theme for our tree each year,” she said. “This year, we chose to highlight the beauty and nature that surrounds us on the island.”
Despite the theme, the important thing is to have multiple colors, textures, ribbons and ornaments on the tree.
“It is important to have the tree as full as you can,” she said. “The more ornaments and decorations the better. This adds a level of ‘wow’ to your tree.”
The Whatleys | Will, Lexie, Eloise, 7, Clara Mae, 3,
and Alice, 2
With three girls, there’s never a dull moment in the Whatley household, and Christmas is no exception. But even with little ones, Lexie and Will have established traditions the girls will pass along to their children someday.
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“Our favorite tradition is going to pick our Christmas tree,” Lexie said. “Each year, our elf ‘Jingle’ comes to visit as soon as our tree is in the house. They get so excited to wake up and see what she’s brought them to kick off the holiday season.”
“We were given quite a few of my grandparents’ UGA ornaments when we first got married,” she said. “I love having them on my tree to remind me of past Christmases spent at their house. Go Dawgs!”
Lexie says families should try to keep decorating the tree as fun as possible.
“It can be stressful with little ones, especially if you’re particular about placement of each ornament, so I usually let them put things where they like and fix it after they go to bed,” she said. “I also love being able to decorate with friends and family – having an extra set of eyes to help you decorate is always fun – especially with a cocktail.”
The Ackermans | Riddick, Brooke, Penn, 5, Briggs, 3, and Mac, 1
There are no Grinches in the Ackerman home. In fact, they love Christmas so much they begin decorating at the beginning of November.
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“The main tree is in the living room and then each bedroom has a tree as well,” Brooke explained. “The kids decorate their trees as they want and they think it’s fun to see the ornaments they have made from the previous years.”
The boys take special pride in putting ornaments on their trees themselves.
As for the grown-ups, a more uniform look with white lights is preferred, and that’s what they have in their living room.
“The whole family helps with decorating the tree; Riddick and I do the lights, and the boys put on the ornaments,” she said. “This year, I rearranged the ornaments and we added a bow on top.
“Once the tree is decorated, we like to sit back and enjoy the lights while watching our first Christmas movie of the season, which is always ‘Elf.’”
Some of Brooke’s favorite ornaments are new to their tree this year. “They are glass keepsake ornaments created from our past Christmas cards, baby announcements and our wedding invitation,” she said. “They are handmade by Collier James Designs and are stunning.”
The Ackermans currently have 12 of these ornaments, and Brooke’s goal is to have an entire tree filled with them some day as she continues to add to her collection each year.
“Always add more lights than you think you need, and remember that you can’t decorate a Christmas tree without listening to Christmas music,” she said.
The Johnsons | Leighton, Nadia, Anastasia, 13, Briley, 15, and Harper, 16.
The Johnsons are a blended family of five, with a house filled with three teen girls and all the activities and fun that comes with that. Nadia emigrated from Eastern Europe many years ago.
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Nadia ranks Christmas as the epitome of family time.
“It is a moment I treasure, as the kids are so excited to be the ones to design and decorate the tree,” she said. “It is a time when we can all focus on what is truly important, without distraction.”
“This one is a little bit selfish, but yes I do have a special ornament,” Nadia said. “I always put a small stars and stripes somewhere on our tree.
“Having been born and (having) spent my childhood in Europe, I never cease to be grateful for the freedoms I enjoy every day as an American.”
She was quick to state that so many people around the world don’t enjoy the same freedoms as we do in the U.S.
“I am thankful every day, and Christmas is kind of a time which sums it all up in my heart,” she said.
Don’t forget to trim the tree with some treats.
“That’s an easy one,” she said. “Always include something sweet to eat. The kids love it and so do we – just one tip, I always put it about 18 inches higher than my dogs/family can jump.”
Josh Dukes and Jason Umfress
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Both Jason and Josh inherited their grandmothers’ vintage ceramic Christmas trees. “We each have such fond memories of putting them up with Grandma Ruby (Jason) and Granny Dukes (Josh), carefully placing the plastic bulbs and birds under their watchful eye,” said Jason. “These women were so instrumental in our lives, and we love celebrating their memory this way.”
The ornaments that have sentimental value to Jason and Josh are those that trigger memories of their adventures.
“Our favorite ornaments are ones we’ve picked up at places that hold meaning for us,” Jason said. “For example, we have a palm tree we picked up in Key West, one from each of our hometowns, a few from Charleston, S.C., where Josh used to live and our new favorite – a replica of the Great Smoky Mountains welcome sign, where we recently honeymooned.
“It’s a stroll down memory lane when we put them on the tree.”
The most important thing to remember is that the Christmas tree should reflect the family whose home it occupies.
“We have two formal trees that are color-coordinated that make our OCD hearts happy, but our main tree is a hodgepodge of old and new ornaments and things that have meaning,” Jason said.
It’s also a good idea to think outside of the box when it comes to considering decorations. They don’t necessarily have to be traditional.
“For example, the garland on our tree this year is the actual receipt from our wedding reception bar bill at Silver Bluff Brewery,” he said. “It makes us giggle and reminds us of how much fun we had with our friends and family.”
Christmas cards, which the couple puts a lot of thought into each year, also adorn the tree. A favorite is one they commissioned their friend, Ed Hose, to draw for them.
In fact, there are surprises everywhere you look in their tree.
“You’ll find the ‘Just Married’ sign from our getaway car, a few cute SoGlo gnome figurines, a family photograph or two … whatever,” Jason said. “If it’s smaller than the tree itself, it’s fair game. In the end, though, it’s unmistakably our tree, a reflection of us and those we love.”