Contributor Two Contributor Two
And the Happiest Season of All!
Contributor Two Contributor Two
Ah, the sights and sounds that truly make Christmas the most wonderful time of the year— the memories, the scents, the presents, the music. The Homecoming Friends recall their fondest…


SHERI EASTER
They say the most powerful memory trigger is our sense of smell. What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
Pine. Every year my great uncle, who worked as a logger, would keep all of our family in mind whenever he was working and would cut down the prettiest trees he found. Sometimes we’d get our trees early, and sometimes it would be well into December, but we could count on two things: it would be pretty, and it would smell like Christmas the minute he brought it into the house.

Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
Our church didn’t really have an official pageant, but we always did special songs or readings during the holiday season. Because of the Charlie Brown Christmas special, I memorized the Christmas story from Luke. My Sunday School teacher took me around to all of the classes to recite it. She made me feel special, and it was one of the first passages I taught to my children as they began to grow up and learn the true meaning of Christmas.

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
My engagement ring from Jeff. Although the ring is beautiful, it was the love it represented that felt so right... the perfect fit!

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
I love the melancholy sound of “What Child is This?” It moves me to tears. “Jingle Bells” is probably my favorite fun song—to hear Jeff sing all of those lyrics cracks me up every year!


ANDY ANDREWS
What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
The smell of a live Frazier Fir Christmas tree is number one — followed closely by the smell of whatever that spiced tea mixture was that my mama used to make. You know the one. It had Tang as its main ingredient!

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
A BB gun that my father gave me. I didn’t think I was going to get one and he didn’t tell my mom that he had gotten it. It was given to me after all the other presents were unwrapped...almost as an afterthought. If this sounds familiar to you, it should. Remember the scene from the movie A Christmas Story? Maybe that’s why that movie is still my favorite of all time. That particular scene is almost identical to what happened one Christmas morning when I was a boy. Incidentally, when I pulled the same thing on my son, we got the whole thing on video!

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
“Mary Did You Know?” by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene is one of my two favorites. The other is “Labor of Love” by the Isaacs. And before I am accused of just saying that because they are all friends of mine, consider this: I listen to those two songs all year long! They are the very best! As for a “fun” Christmas song, let me plumb the depths of the opposite direction with “Merry Christmas From the Family” by Montgomery Gentry. That song just cracks me up. Yes, I know it’s kind of a “redneck” classic, but remember, I am from Alabama. We still have people in our state who think “The Beverly Hillbillies” was a documentary!


SOLVEIG LEITHAUG
They say the most powerful memory trigger is our sense of smell. What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
Fresh-cut pine. Dad would always bring a pine tree into our living room on December 23 — which is the day we in Norway call “Little Christmas Eve” — for Mom and us kids to decorate. I love the smell of freshcut trees. Also cured lamb ribs — pinnekjøtt — the traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner I grew up with and still serve my family every year on Christmas Eve. (Paired with mashed rutabagas and lots of other delicious side dishes, it is heavenly!)

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
The present that to this day stands out as the most fabulous gift I ever received was a white pair of  figure skates. I think I was 11. On our home island north of Bergen, we did not have indoor skating opportunities, but every now and then, we’d get some extra cold weeks in the winter where our lakes would freeze over. My friends and I created amateur skating competitions — for and by us kids only. Then we’d skate for hours till we’d stumble in the dark, and hurry home happy, sore and tired after all the falls. Sonja Henie was Norway’s famed  figure skating “queen.” When I put those white skates on, my young heart was dreaming to one day have some of her elegance on the ice. (Now when I ice skate, I’m busy praying I don’t break a leg.)

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
One that stands out to me is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written by Longfellow in 1863, shortly after his wife had died and his son was badly injured in war. It is such a gripping, honest lyric of how the message of Christmas can seem vain in times of tragedy, trials and sorrow. But then he is awakened to the importance of its message, to again lift our attention to Him who offers true hope and peace. Also, ”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” first performed by Judy Garland in the movie ”Meet Me in St. Louis” in 1943, is such a dear song to me.

I love the tenderness in the lyrics and how the melody ebbs and flows. I was a single mom and must have had this song on my brain for all of Advent and Christmas when closer to New Year, my children and their friends decided to talk me into making my first Christmas CD. The process of making this record eventually brought the gift of a new beginning and marriage to Jim Chaffee! Jim was the CD’s executive producer. I have recorded both these songs on my Christmas Peace CD. (Available at iTunes and solveigmusic.com.)


TANYA GOODMAN SYKES
What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
Warm apple and clove scents immediately transport me to the holidays. Those are two of the main ingredients in a delicious wassail that my mom makes at Christmas time. Nothing’s better on a cold night!

Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
I played Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Ralph Carmichael’s ’Specially for Shepherds about three years running. It was in our church in Madisonville, Kentucky and I absolutely loved every minute of it. It was a small-town production but we did it up as big as we knew how. We all spent as much time working on sets and costumes as we did rehearsing the music; we were like one big happy family—GREAT fun! Someone actually posted this picture a few weeks ago on Facebook! Who knew Mary had feathered bangs...”

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
The absolute best Christmas present I ever received was in 2001 when Michael gave me the gift of Lasik vision correction. I’ve had horrible vision since I was a kid, and he made the appointment and all the arrangements and wrapped the paperwork up in a gift box. I cried and cried. I still tell him about once a week how much it means to me.

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
My favorite Christmas Song is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” based on the poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I can never get through those lyrics without crying. The message is just so beautiful and powerful! My favorite pop Christmas song is “Merry Christmas, Darling” by the one and only Karen Carpenter. Everyone in the Sykes house knows it ain’t Christmas till Mom busts out the Carpenters’ Christmas CD.


JANET PASCHAL
Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
My participation in Christmas pageantry is completely unmemorable; however, my sister Kay was playing the role of the innkeeper’s wife one year. When she was talking to her husband (the innkeeper) and messed up her lines, she began to laugh. Unable to stop, she simply crawled into the manger scene with Mary and Joseph, who looked at her and whispered, “What are you doing in here?” Another year, my sister and I were in a Christmas play together at our church. The play was lengthy (a lot of dialogue) and the cast was big. The director kept nudging Kay to memorize her lines, as she continued to use her book at rehearsals, even as the date neared. On the night of the play, Kay added “props” to her scenes: books and magazines on which to hide her script which she never actually memorized. The video is hilarious, with her looking over her shoulder as she comforts her daughter, or looking down at the floor when conversing with her son. We assured her that Steven Spielberg would not be trying to find contact info for her!

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
I recall two best Christmas presents. My grandmother gave me a large, hardcover book of fairy tales that I read and re-read until the cover disintegrated. Santa Claus left for me a blue Tom Thumb cash register which I used in my makeshift store in the woods behind our home. I probably accumulated years’ worth of time playing both customer and merchant.


BUDDY GREENE
What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
Fresh evergreen boughs.

Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
I don’t recall ever being in a pageant, but my wife played Mary in a church Christmas pageant one time and had a wasp crawling up her gown. She had to wait for just the right moment to swat it into the third pew!

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
I remember I got a model train one year, when I was about 10. “Pretty groovy!”

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
It’s always changing, but probably “Joy to the World” because of the powerful way it proclaims the gospel. For fun, I love “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” I’ll never forget playing that song the first Christmas my mother had moved into an Alzheimer’s care residence. All the staff members got the patients up out of their seats to dance, and it was total mayhem. Just fabulous — all these women who couldn’t remember where they were, were “rockin’ around the Christmas tree!”


MARK LOWRY
They say the most powerful memory trigger is our sense of smell. What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
Cinnamon.

Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
In college my friends, twin brothers Rick and Mick Vigneulle and I were the Chipmunks during The Living Christmas Tree production.

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
The Gaither Christmas bonus.

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
Well, of course my favorite is “Mary Did You Know?” I like “Jingle Bells” too.


LuANN BURGER
What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
For me, there is nothing else that says Christmas like the fragrance of mulled cider simmering on the stove. The rich aroma gives our home such a sense of being “home for the holidays.” Combine it with the heavenly smell of baked goods and the scent of fresh-cut evergreen trees, and you have a warm and cozy setting in which to share old memories and make new ones.


Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
Christmas pageants always meant a lot of extra work for the musicians! One year in particular stands out as I was pregnant with Lori and the decision was made to use a soundtrack for the pageant which meant I was now the “featured alto.” I’m a firm believer in “ordered steps” as Lori arrived two weeks ahead of time, and final rehearsals and performances were so much sweeter with a beautiful baby girl present to hear the music from a new perspective.

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
There are SO many great Christmas presents I’ve received over the years, but I think the year that Anthony and I gave ourselves a four-day “non-working” cruise was the best gift ever. We went right after the Christmas tour and before our family celebrations. He had never been on a cruise where he didn’t have to work and it was a wonderfully relaxing time together, filled with wonderful memories to last a lifetime.

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
“Mary Did You Know?” has become my most meaningful Christmas song in recent years. I had always enjoyed hearing it, but it seems that after the passing of my 18-year-old son, Gary, it became much more significant. Being able in some small way to relate to Mary, to her dreams for her son, and to the unanticipated early death makes it an endearing song for me. During the last several years on the Gaither Homecoming Tour, the Christmas concerts were some of my favorites. Each night, it was wonderful to hear Mark deliver those powerful words, all the while feeling the poignant reminder of my loss. In the “fun” Christmas song category, I’ve always loved “Jingle Bells.” Each year Anthony did an elaborate Christmas solo tour in which he played a unique arrangement of “Jingle Bells” mixed with a little “Feliz Navidad.” We always looked forward to those concerts with anticipation, all the while knowing that Christmas vacation was on the horizon.


GENE McDONALD
What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
My mom would make what seemed like a 55-gallon drum of Chex Mix and she would also make chocolate pies. Those smells would fill the house for about a week before Christmas. I also loved the smell of popcorn at my grandma’s house — she made it so we could make strings for the Christmas tree and for popcorn balls.

Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
I got to sing “O Christmas Tree” in a first grade play as a solo.

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
The best Christmas present ever was a motorcycle when I was about 8 years old. Then when I was older, it was a wife and a little boy to share the experience with!

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
“Angels We Have Heard On High”— it reminds me of my choir days. And for fun — “Jingle Bells!”


WES HAMPTON
What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
The smell of cinnamon, apples and cedar always transport me to Christmas. I always think of spiced-apple cider and candles we have around the house during this wonderful time of year. I’ve always loved the smell of cedar anyway, but even more so when I associate it with Christmas.

Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
I was in A Christmas Carol when I was around 9 years old. I played the part of the little boy who asks Scrooge for a penny. During one of the performances, while walking onto the stage for my big moment, my left arm brushed against part of the set and completely knocked it down. I heard the entire audience gasp as it was falling. I was mortified!

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
I remember getting a little rideable motorcyle tricycle that made noises and lit up. I played with that constantly!

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
“Silent Night” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — great combination, huh? “Silent Night” is my favorite carol because that’s where the story started. Such a beautiful and calming melody and lyric. “Rudolph” because I still enjoy singing it with my kids.


LORI APPLE
What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
I’m sure, like many, I believe the scent of rich evergreen was made specifically for Christmas. To ensure its constant presence around the holidays, I have numerous Yankee Candles strategically placed around the house.

Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
I may appear to be the pageant kind, but those who really know me don’t even have to ask this question — the answer is NO! I know it’s shocking, but as a child I wasn’t interested in “fa la la la la la la la la.” I had other things to do like flipping through the Sears Toy Catalog and writing down the item numbers, helping my parents decorate the house, and other non-pageant activities! However, I did support my friends and attended their performances.

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
Sugar, my miniature white poodle is the best Christmas gift I ever received. She had a massive burgundy (not red because according to my mom, that wouldn’t match the Christmas decorations) satin bow wrapped around her little neck. Then, reality set in when I had to monitor her “business.” Luckily, we quickly got her on a schedule!

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
I love “O Holy Night.” It paints such a wonderful picture of the best gift ever given. This particular song became very special to me as night after night on the Homecoming Christmas Tour, David Phelps and the incomparable Anthony Burger captivated all of us with their heartstirring performance. As we joined in, the anthem-like chorus transformed hockey arenas and municipal auditoriums across the country to houses of worship. In the “fun” Christmas song category, my favorite is Babyface’s arrangement of “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” In early November it blasts over the house intercom, inspiring us to unpack all of the plastic tubs filled with decorations! With its unique gospel arrangement, you almost get the feeling that Rudolph has a message to share.


LILY ISAACS
What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
The scent that I remember most and transports me back to my childhood is roasted chestnuts. They were sold by the little street vendors in New York City. Almost every December my family and I would go to Manhattan to enjoy all the Christmas decorations and all the hoopla. Every time I would get hungry I would enjoy a kosher hot dog with hot sauerkraut from the little street vendors with an umbrella covering them. Although I never ate chestnuts, the smell would make me so happy! I knew it was Christmastime.

Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
Being raised Jewish, I really never got involved in many Christmas plays. But at one of my first jobs (at a greenhouse) they were planning a big Christmas celebration and wanted to invite all the community. They were giving away treats to children and needed someone to act as an ambassador of goodwill. Instead of a Santa Claus, they opted for a Christmas angel. I guess I was one of the youngest women employees there, so my boss just gave me the job. I dressed up as an angel — all in white and I even had wings! I sat in a Christmas sled and greeted all the children, passing out cookies and asking them what they wanted me to tell Santa. It was so much fun — I had a ball!

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
I had an older model TV in my family room for years. I guess my kids got tired of me complaining about the picture being so bad, so last year they totally surprised me and bought me a 52-inch flat-screen TV. I was so surprised and I am enjoying it so much. My kids are the best!

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
The most fun Christmas song I enjoy is the song Sonya wrote on our latest Christmas CD — “Santa Claus is Real.” My three adorable granddaughters, Cameron, Kyra and Jakobi sang on it with my kids. Watching them in the studio was such a treat. They were pros! I especially love their little conversation at the end of the song. Everyone will have to buy a copy to hear it! (Available at theisaacs.com or at gaither.com.)


KAREN PECK GOOCH
What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
Every fall, while the leaves are turning, the smell of pine trees triggers my excitement for the Christmas season. The chill in the air and the smell of pine trees means Christmas time is coming.

Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
I can’t remember how old I was, but one of my fondest Christmas pageant memories was standing in a chair singing at the top of my lungs!

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
My best Christmas gift was Baby Boo. When I saw her under the tree, it was love at first sight. She remained my favorite doll of all time.

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
“Silent Night” is my favorite Christmas carol. As a child I loved it. Seems like every time I hear it, it warms my heart. That little Lord Jesus changed my life and I love Him. My favorite “fun” Christmas song is “Jingle Bells.” It just simply makes me happy!


KELLY NELON CLARK
What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
We always teased my mother that she rolled the stove out only twice a year, and that was at Thanksgiving and Christmas. In reality she was a really good Southern cook. The smell of turkey and dressing takes me back to that childhood time when life was so simple and Christmas was spent playing Monopoly games that would last forever.


Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
When I was eight months pregnant with Autumn, I was invited to play Mary in the Christmas play at Glen Haven Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. I really “fit” the part!

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
I love anything that sparkles, and I would have to say my favorite present was when I was 13 years old. I always wanted a ring that had diamonds in it. That year my parents surprised me with a birthstone ring that was surrounded by little diamonds. I thought it was the most beautiful ring I had ever seen. I still have it.

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
“Away In a Manger” always made me think of that little baby who was so sweet and innocent and came to this world and paid the ultimate price so that I could have everlasting life.


JEFF HAWES
What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
To this day, when I smell apple-scented candles, I am immediately transported to Christmas. Whether I am walking by Bath and Body Works or having dinner at Cracker Barrel, as soon as I smell a candle, it’s like the little boy comes out in me. I want to decorate a tree, sing carols, eat apple pie and of course, open gifts.

Were you ever in a Christmas pageant? What is your fondest memory of that experience?
When I was 13, I was cast as Tiny Tim in the musical A Christmas Carol for the Northeast Alabama Community College Theater. I was always small for my age, so it seemed perfectly fine to cast me for a much younger role, but by the time rehearsals for the play began later that fall, I underwent a significant growth spurt. The actor who played my father could no longer carry me in his arms, so he had to resort to slinging me across his back—making quite a comical relief for the play’s serious theme. In the play when I said “God bless us everyone,” I was hoping that God would bless everyone like he had blessed me that summer. I grew two inches and four shoe sizes, making me the BIGGEST Tiny Tim in history!

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
Honestly, I would say it would be 1995 — fifth grade — the year I got office supplies for Christmas. I’ll never forget the feeling as the anticipation began to build on Christmas morning. I knew Santa wouldn’t let me down. Most 12 year olds ask Santa for sports gear, video games and cologne, but for an aspiring teacher, I couldn’t wait to get a stapler, hole punch, calculator, easy grader and file folders.

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
My favorite Christmas carol is “O Holy Night.” To this day when I hear the children’s choir sing this song on the movie Home Alone, I still get chills. My favorite “fun” Christmas song is “Carol of the Bells.” Every Christmas, I would play the Johnny Mathis version of the song in my bedroom while I played school. I would have an imaginary Christmas party for my imaginary students while Johnny sang “Carol of the Bells.” Then I would hang Christmas lights all around my room — an electrical explosion waiting to happen.


REBA RAMBO McGUIRE
What scent immediately transports you to Christmas?
There’s something about combined joys — Christmas breakfast and supper cooking in the same kitchen! Mom would have the thick-slab peppered bacon sizzling in the cast-iron skillet and her buttermilk cathead biscuits rising in the oven, just above Dad’s favorite herbcrusted leg of lamb. The inevitable huge pot of Kentucky Wonder green beans with smoked ham hocks, slow simmered next to a stove full of other covered delights. And imagine the sweet joy—golden-brown fried peach pies, peanut butter cookies, banananut bread and decadent double chocolate cake with fresh whipped cream. There were almost more intoxicating aromas than a kid could stand!

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
Dad would always be waiting with the Brownie Hawkeye camera as I bounded through the door, and Santa always left the toys unwrapped and scattered around the festive, glowing cedar tree. Clothes were boxed, then donned with bright paper and embellished with Mom’s special flair for gift wrapping. There were a few perks to being an only child—I got all the toys!

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
I remember Christmases growing up when usually, about sundown, the neighbors would begin to come out of the hills and hollers to gather at our little home. They would assemble with banjos, fiddles, harmonicas, guitars, mandolins and voices in tow. Sipping hot apple cider and listening to those simple folks lift up their voices—“O holy night, the stars are brightly shining…” had to be the best Christmas concert in town!


ANN DOWNING
What scent transports you to Christmas?
My “smell” memory sensor around Christmas is the smell of that huge stacked cake that my mama always baked. I guess it would be called a jam cake — we called it “cooked fruitcake.” It had that glorious sugary icing and those jellies all over the top and the most wonderful aroma of spices of all kinds.

What is the absolute best Christmas present you ever received?
I guess my most fun Christmas present was the bicycle that I’d longed for forever — a green and white Western Flyer.

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
I think my fave Christmas carol is “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” I love the melody line and unique lyrics in describing that “heavenly” visit there on that hillside.

My fave “fun” Christmas song isn’t really “fun” but I love “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” My mama and daddy and Paul are all in heaven, so my Christmases have been changed drastically from what the family’s activities used to be on that family farm in North Mississippi. But in my heart, I can still go “home” for Christmas, ’cause the memories and the reality of that baby being born are in my heart — and that can be “home.”


LULU ROMAN
What scent transports you to Christmas?
Well now, that would be cinnamon spice anything! But especially ciders and such.

What is the absolute best Christmas present you have ever received?
The best Christmas present I ever got was my oldest son coming home from Germany. He had been gone almost two years, and I hadn’t seen him in that time. It was a special time for me. I was so excited I had a banner made to welcome him home at the airport!

What is your favorite Christmas carol and favorite “fun” Christmas song?
My favorite Christmas carol is “Silent Night.” I’ve always loved it even as a child; I love to sing it too. It tells the lovely story of our Savior’s birth and the events surrounding it. My favorite fun Christmas song is “Jingle Bells”—I love to hear the bells in the background.