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Christmas in Laurel

Neighbors and friends in a small Mississippi town make sure everyone is welcome during the holidays. 
by Judy Smith

As I turn the calendar page to December, Christmas lights are all aglow along the main street in town, ribbons cascade and tumble from the tops of perfectly shaped fir trees and silver bells, wreaths and garlands adorn front doors and lampposts. There’s just a special type of charm that graces a small Southern town during Christmastime. As the whole town is decked out in its holiday finery, the spirit embraces its citizens like nowhere else.

This magical spell of Christmas enchants a Southern town, turning our little corner of the world into a slightly warmer version of a winter wonderland. Or at least that’s how it is in the town that I’m from and still live in today­ – Laurel, Mississippi. In a flurry of snowmen, candycanes and lighted trees, Laurel takes on a special glow. We never forget the reason for the season though, and everything about the holidays here is firmly rooted in family and tradition.

For as long as I can remember, the whole month of December in our small town has always been filled with lots of activities and celebrations, especially for me. My birthday is Pearl Harbor Day, December 7, but Christmastime started way before that. When I was growing up, the official kickoff to the holiday season happened on the day after Thanksgiving, and it had nothing to do with shopping and sales. On that Friday, my older brother and sisters would wake me up early, and we would go wait in our back yard, searching the skies. The roar of a helicopter would soon break the silence and circle the shopping center behind our house, as Santa Claus parachuted out into the cheering crowd below. To me, that always signaled the official Christmas season.

Now, most people consider the Sertoma Club Christmas Parade on the first Saturday of December to be the kickoff. It’s a tradition for many families to enjoy pancakes at the Kiwanis Pancake Day benefit before staking out their spot to catch a glimpse of the jolly old man himself. It’s always funny to see the same families in the same locations along the parade route every year. It’s almost like we all have designated spots to watch the procession, offering friends and families a chance to reconnect. The Christmas Parade is a tradition that Laurel residents wouldn’t even consider missing.

Laurel native Sandy Holifield and her brother always loved riding horses decorated with tinsel in the parade, and she fondly remembers the nighttime procession, with old-fashioned lights and garland draping across the streets. “Those were really special with all the lights glittering,” she says. “It just seemed magical.”

Although Mitch Stennett is a 21-year transplant to the area, his fondest memories are of taking his sons, Bill and Jim, to see the Christmas parade every year. Despite chilly temperatures, Stennett and his wife would bundle up the boys, head over to their favorite spot along the route and wave at all the local bands and friends that passed by on colorfully decorated floats.

Larkin Simpson, chamber director of the Jones County Chamber of Commerce, would never dream of spending his holiday season anywhere other than the Pine Belt because of the “warm friendly atmosphere” the holiday brings. “Every day is just like a Hallmark movie,” he says. “Christmas wreaths on every door and lamppost, trees in every window – you can’t help but get into the spirit here.”

All the businesses and neighbors get in on the decorating in Laurel and the nearby town of Ellisville. A centerpiece location to take in their hard work is at Mason Park in Laurel. Amid twinkling lights, angels in flight and flamingos aglow, the holiday spirit is alive and well here. Children, and children at heart, are enchanted by the larger-than-life Nativity scene, elves working in Santa’s workshop, spinning lighted carousel, whirling Ferris wheel, ice skaters and more. Mason Park has over 200,000 lights that bring a glow to the night sky until January first and have been attracting crowds since 1996.

The display has grown quite a bit since that first year when there were only about three or four donated angels and 10 trees decorated by volunteers. Now, the two-block winter wonderland operates thanks to the tireless work of many volunteers and generous donations of local corporations.

“Our whole town is really alive with the spirit of Christmas, and we work so hard to spread the love and joy of Christ, because that really is the reason for the season,” says Eva Ann Allen, a volunteer who helped establish the layout of the park.

But Mason Park isn’t the only place in Laurel that spreads Christmas cheer. Many neighborhoods have established traditions, bringing the holiday spirit to their street and local residents. Joyce Smith and her husband, the late Ed Smith, were inspired to start a tradition of their own on Northpark Street. In 1975, Joyce gathered her neighbors together for coffee and cake and shared with them an idea she had seen in a magazine – larger-than-life Christmas cards for each house on the street.

“I was just amazed at how everyone got so excited about the idea,” she remembers. “We set up shop in our back yard, making the cards. Masonite [the local lumber company] donated 4×8 pieces of boards, and my husband and the neighbors cut them in half and hinged them to look like cards. The boys in the neighborhood helped to clean up the yards, and it just brought the whole neighborhood together. It was really special.”

Drivers down Northpark today still get a personal greeting in front of each house, and it’s that sense of community that inspired Todd Smith, Joyce and Ed’s oldest son, and his wife, Pam, to move to the neighborhood. “We really wanted our son, Wyatt, to know how that feels to grow up with your family and caring neighbors around him,” Pam says. “We wanted Wyatt to have that small-town experience.”

In return, the neighbors have put Todd to work remaking and updating cards for some of the elderly residents. He’s more than happy to help the parents of his friends and neighbors who watched him grow up and keep the Christmas card tradition alive.

Another long-standing tradition in the area is Christmas in the Village and candlelight tours at Landrum’s Country Homestead and Village. The village contains original log cabins, farm equipment and an old-time general store, among other items that have been gathered by the Landrum family to honor the past and keep the history of the family and area alive. Anne Landrum is excited to be celebrating the Homestead’s 28th Christmas celebration this year, and many faithfully travel every year to celebrate the holiday season with her, coming from as far away as New Orleans.

Beneath a sparkling canopy of stars, twinkling fairy lights line the walkways and antique buildings and barn at Landrum’s, inviting guests to partake in the enchantment that only an old-time Christmas in the South can bring. Holiday music fills the air as groups of carolers stroll through the crowd, bringing to mind images of what Christmas was like in the 1800s.

“It’s always special to us that so many people share their Christmas celebrations with us,” Anne says. “So many people tell us that we help to bring back memories of stories their parents or grandparents told them about Christmas in their time. It keeps the family close and brings back many sweet memories.”

Memories of Christmas in the South are special. Some of my most treasured ones are of church bells ringing at midnight on Christmas Eve, of helping my grandparents bake holiday cakes and of my big brother waking me up before everyone else to sneak a peek at what Santa brought. Some of them are bittersweet, tinged with scents of peppermint and warm pecan pies, because they can’t last forever. At some point, we have to grow up, and Christmas often loses a little bit of its magic.

I’m thankful that here in Laurel, there’s plenty of magic to go around, and the city is also determined to keep the traditions of the season alive. I’m also determined to keep that magic alive in my own family and wouldn’t trade my sweet Southern Christmases for anything in the world.

Photo credits, from top: Greeting card at the Smiths, Sertoma Christmas Parade, historic home of Dr. Benjamin Weber, First United Methodist Church in downtown Laurel, Ferris Wheel at Mason Park, Joyce Smith with her greeting card, all taken by Judy Smith; candlelight tour at Landrum’s General Store courtesy of Barbara Upton of Landrum’s Homestead and Village.

Judy Smith is a freelance writer living in Laurel, Mississippi. Her work has been featured  in South Mississippi LivingThe Talon Magazine and Beach Boulevard Magazine, and she also writes an insider blog on things to do in Jackson for VisitSouth.com. A version of Smith’s Natchez Trace article previously ran in Mississippi Agriculture Monthly Magazine. She’s pictured on the right as a newborn celebrating her first Christmas with her siblings. 

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