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“Christmas is my favorite time of year. This one will be the first without a parent for me, but the memories and values that they planted will carry me and keep me warm.”
Earl Ward – Owner, Ward Medical Services; husband; father; grandfather

“Each Christmas Eve, for as far back as I can remember, we’d go to my grandmother’s house and have biscuits and baked ham, and someone would always bring a bag of oysters (from Apalachicola or West Bay…the best oysters in the world). The deal was always that I got to open one gift that night. This is a tradition we still do today with our kids – church, biscuits, ham and, depending on the season, oysters from Apalachicola. And, of course, we each open one gift.”
Aaron Johnson – President, The NOC; husband; dad

“Christmas shopping with my family is my favorite holiday memory. Mom, my sisters, my brother, and I would take the bus from southside to downtown Jacksonville. We always went to a big, old-fashioned department store, either May-Cohens or Furchgotts, where we would split up and buy presents for each other – things like books, cologne, candy, talcum powder (remember that stuff?), or some small toy or stuffed animal. When we finished, we would go to the Woolworth’s diner for grilled cheese and hot chocolate before heading home on the bus again. We spent the evening wrapping gifts and putting them under the tree as the final decoration.”
Becky Yanni – Executive Director, Council on Aging

“We played Old Maid every Christmas Eve. We were, for so long, still using the old pack we bought at Pic N’ Save when I was in elementary school. The Old Maid card became so earmarked that my dad found another set – the exact same one – on eBay a couple of years ago. We play EVERY Christmas Eve, even when we were displaced by the hurricane.”
Claudia Dencer – Vice President of Sales, Leonard’s; mom; wife

“I was brought up in a Jewish family, so Hanukkah was what we celebrated in December. The Jewish calendar determines the date. Sometimes it would fall on Christmas or close to it, and sometimes it would be very early in December or even late November. So, it almost never felt as exciting as it seemed Christmas would be to celebrate! It was easier when it was closer to Christmas because it felt more festive. We always were around families who celebrated Christmas in a big way, with huge trees and lots of decorations, so our menorah with nine candles wasn’t as exciting when we were kids. Now, there are more Hanukkah decorations and festivities, it seems. My family always worked to make Hanukkah special by hiding the gifts, playing games, and having our special Hanukkah foods and sweets that we didn’t normally eat. Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, and all my Christian friends thought that we were really lucky! In reality, though, to us the holiday still didn’t seem as big as most of my friends’ Christmas celebrations appeared! We would usually get one big gift, such as a bike or a special toy. The other nights we received much smaller gifts, such as pajamas, small toys, or books.”
Karen Selig – semi-retired marriage & family therapist, business owner, volunteer board member, wife, mother

“Growing up in Germany in the ‘40s and ‘50s, my favorite memories are of Advent time, the four weeks before Christmas, that are a quiet family time of reflection. The Advent wreath, with its four red candles, would be in the middle of the table and, on Sundays, the family would gather around it, usually with tea and cake. A candle would be lit each Sunday until all four were burning; then it was Christmas. Christmas was all about the birth of the baby Jesus. There was no Santa Claus on Christmas. He came earlier in December, on Saint Nicholas Day, and he brought oranges and nuts and maybe a chocolate Santa, if you were good. The bad children got lumps of coal.”
Ingrid Guier – retired banker, mother, grandmother

“My favorite childhood memory is spending Three Kings Day with my family. Growing up in a Spanishspeaking country [Puerto Rico], we celebrated the Epiphany every year on January 6 to honor the Three Wise Men. This holiday represents the day that the Three Kings gave their gifts to Jesus Christ. As children, my brother and I would prepare for the arrival of the Three Kings on the night of January 5. In the United States, it is the tradition to leave milk and cookies for Santa Claus, but our tradition consists of cutting grass from the yard, placing it into a box, and setting it under the bed. The grass would be eaten by the Three Kings’ camels during the night, and the remains of the grass would be intentionally dispersed through the room.”
Geraldine McDowall

The Tree

I grew up with a real Christmas tree, never a store-bought one. Each year, my family would go into the woods to find the ‘perfect’ tree. My memory takes me back to one year when we were traveling home from my mother’s parent’s house, south of St. Augustine, at DuPont Center. My parents, two of my older sisters, and I were in the car when Daddy decided to pull off the road and cut our tree. We got so excited as he searched for ‘the one.’ He wasn’t nearly as concerned about the looks of the tree as we were, if you get my drift. As we drove away, we looked back at a spindly old scrub pine with the top cut off. Our ‘tree,’ what had been the top of that other tree just moments before, was now strapped to the top of our 1963 Chevy station wagon, headed north on US 1.

We arrived home filled with excitement for the annual tree decorating. It didn’t take long for my sisters and I to realize that we had a ‘Charlie Brown’ kind of tree going. The more decorations and tinsel we tried to hang on that tree, the sadder it looked. It was, by far, the most pitiful tree we had ever seen. There was no talk of my parents buying a tree, as ‘this tree is perfectly fine,’ they said. After a bucket full of tears, they finally gave in and allowed my oldest sister to drive to Jacksonville Beach to buy a replacement. That was the first tree we ever had from an actual tree lot, and it is one that I will always remember with a smile.

Our tree may not have always been the most beautiful, but there were always a handful of ornaments that had to be placed in just the right spots. These were our special ornaments, some of which I still hang on my tree today. These ornaments all had a special meaning or represented something or someone dear to our family.

When my children were born, my parents gave my son and daughter a special ornament each year. I kept the boxes they came in, most of them with a small note from my Mama and always with the year it was given. These ornaments became our special ornaments, with their special places to be hung each year. My kids now hang those ornaments on their own trees.

Even though our kids are grown and married, Christmas is still centered around our tree, with decorations and presents galore and hardly enough room for them all. There are now four beautiful and perfect reasons I take such pride in our tree. Our tradition continues through our precious grandchildren: Blake, Luke, Riley and Pearl. I proudly hang a new picture ornament of each of them, along with ones from every year before. Oh, and you can bet, they each receive a new ornament from me for their future trees, too!”

The best gift I received as a child was…

“I don’t remember any Christmas gift sticking out except for a ‘Three Dog Night’ eight-track tape that Mom bought me because the guy at the record store talked her into it. She didn’t know who it was. I loved music, and still do, so that was special. I spent hours singing “How does your light shine in the hall of Shamballa” …Ironic?”
Kathy Fleming – Executive Director, St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum; wife; mother

“My mom was a single mom with three children and a minimal income. We only got a few gifts under the tree each year but, one year, my big gift was a cashmere sweater. It was the most beautiful article of clothing I ever had, and I know she sacrificed to give it to me.”
Suzanne Brown – Senior Vice President and Regional Manager, Fidelity Bank; mother

“As an avid reader, even as a child, books were my favorite gift. We used to go to the library and, when we got home, my Mom would take the books away from me and parcel them out one per day. Otherwise, I’d read them all in a day or two and be wanting to go back to the library, which was a once a week trip! I usually received a couple of books for Christmas, but one year I got the entire set of Nancy Drew books (the original stories). To have the whole set with no restrictions on how fast I read them was so exciting! To this day, mysteries written by female authors are my favorite type of books!”
Teresa Andrews – Director of Development, EPIC Behavioral Healthcare/BBBS of St. Johns County; mother

“The best gift I received as a child was a pair of Air Jordan basketball shoes. I was quite the tomboy when I was young, and I wanted those specific shoes so badly. I wore them proudly through three basketball seasons.”
Sarah Swiatowicz – Physician Assistant, Flagler Family Medicine; Corresponding Secretary, Junior Service League

“My favorite gift was a cart to pull behind my pony. It was a rare, warm Christmas in Maryland, so, that morning, my brothers and I pulled each other around the yard in our Christmas PJs…..without the pony.”
Katie Belcher – Kindergarten teacher, wife, mother

“My favorite gift was a big stereo system. I loved making up dance routines and dancing around the house. My second favorite gift would have to be a car, when I was old enough to drive.”
Jessica Stern – General Manager, Carrera Wine Cellar

“My favorite holiday gift was a new bicycle. When I was at R. B. Hunt Elementary school, I was actually allowed to ride it to school from the beach! Those were the good old days.”
Bill Young – St. Johns County Director of Utilities, husband, father

“The best gift I received was art supplies: a sketch book, paints, brushes, pencils, and charcoal.”
Jan Miller – Owner/Director, Butterfield Garage Art Gallery; wife; mother; grandmother

If I were a child again, the gift I would want is…


“If I were a child with the perspective of a 65+ year old adult, I’d like one more bike ride to Woolworth’s to check out the newest toys or one more day trip to Marineland with my grandfather to see the fish, especially Nellie the dolphin, or just a nice rock with my grandmother while she reads ‘Mike Mulligan and His Steamshovel.’”
Doug Wiles – President, Herbie Wiles Insurance; husband; father; grandfather

“I’d wish for more time with my family. Looking back, I remember more experiences – trips, gatherings, and special events – than objects.”
Teresa Smith – Educational Diagnostician, Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind; mom; wife

“I’d wish to learn how to surf at a younger age.”
Mike Davis – President, A.D. Davis Construction; husband, father

“I would wish for a greater sense of cherishing the moments. I’ve always been a person looking for, and eager to accomplish, the next thing. This has made me overlook small things, like fishing trips that were really about spending quality time with my dad or having my older brothers antagonizing me because they truly wanted the best for me.”
Alexius Ferguson – Community Leader

Katey Anderson

“If I were a child again, I’d wish for a Baby Alive. This year? I’m asking for a boat and a Captain.” 😉
Katey Anderson – Nurse, Mayo Clinic; JSL Board Member

“I would say that I’d want snap circuit bric structures. I also always wanted a pogo stick, but my parents said no to that. So, I’d want a pogo stick, too!”
Jennifer Ellen-Ellis – Owner, Olde Towne Toys; mother

Ken Yarbrough

Ahhh, to be a kid again

I was a kid a LONG time ago! In many ways, though, I still feel like a big kid today. As a youngster, I was very blessed with a wonderful family that taught me many things and provided many holiday – and everyday – memories. I was a fifth generation child, meaning that I had a living great-great grandmother when I was a youngster. I was able to enjoy Christmas with a full set of living grandparents up until 2013. I was 47 years old. I miss them all dearly.

So, if I could be a kid again, I don’t think I’d ask for a specific material gift for Christmas, although that electric train set was always a favorite. So, too, was the guitar I got when I was only a few years old. After all these years, I still can’t play very well! Gosh, not only did those good people influence me in so many ways and set me up for a successful life, but they provided love and good times that were immeasurable. The food from our family holiday gatherings was enough to feed an army. We’d have leftovers for days.

I don’t think I, as a child, realized how special and fleeting those times were at the time, when I was living them. It’s not until they’re gone that you look back and realize how special those years with your elders are and were. So, if I could be a kid again and wish for anything, it would be to have just one more holiday with those in my family who came before me – those who taught me how to bait a hook and fish, play music, drive a car, and back a boat trailer down the ramp. I’d like to give them a gift, too – an ‘I love you’ and a big thank you for all they did for me as a young man.

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