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Front Page - Friday, December 2, 2022

And a Partridge on a boombox

Chattanoogans share touching, offbeat holiday traditions, from serving others to pickle hunts to singing along with David Cassidy

At the dinner table in Luis Contreras’ home, a 3-year-old Latina girl closes her tiny fist around three kernels of corn and shyly says she’s thankful for her shoes.

Elsewhere in Chattanooga, Local News 3 anchorman David Carroll and his two sons are gleefully torturing their wives with their annual viewing of the music video for Hall and Oates’ 1980s Yuletide smash, “Jingle Bell Rock.”

And in the Lebovitz household, Alison and her husband, Alan, light a menorah and wistfully reminisce about the Chanukah traditions they observed as their three sons grew up.

The annual arrival of the holiday season gives new birth to familiar sights, sounds, aromas and flavors in Chattanooga. But as EPB draws back the curtain on its window displays, the Chattanooga Market launches its festive extravaganza and students at Covenant College perform their yearly Christmas concert, people throughout the city observe their own traditions in their homes and communities.

And as individuals and families celebrate the season in unique and personal ways, they contribute a thread to the colorful tapestry that portrays Chattanooga’s rich diversity.

Like an Advent calendar with window shutters that open to miniature scenes, here are peeks into the homes and traditions of 10 assorted families in Chattanooga.

Luis Contreras

As the owner of The Local Juicery+Kitchen, Contreras says he’s thankful for provision for his family. With this in mind, he and his wife set aside a moment each holiday season to instill gratitude in their two daughters.

Contreras says he pilfered their tradition from his mother-in-law.

“We each hold three corn kernels while we’re sitting at the dinner table and say three things we’re thankful for,” he explains. “It doesn’t matter what they are. My 3-year-old, Ariana, once said she’s thankful for her shoes. Our oldest, Valentina, says she’s grateful for her toys.”

Contreras laughs as he confesses to being thankful for his car. He then reveals the deeper purpose of his family’s holiday tradition, which he and his wife also observe with the staff that serves The Local Juicery and two additional businesses they own.

“Maybe you’re thankful for your mother, but you’ve never told her what she means to you. If you say you’re thankful for someone, I’ll challenge you to call that person and tell them.”

Contreras’ holiday tradition is a family-sized version of a personal ritual he says he observes every day.

“When I wake up in the morning, I think of something I’m thankful for and then choose something to do with intent that day,” he says. “My hope is to give someone else a reason to be grateful.”

Ashley Long

Although many children enjoy the holidays for the presents and the treats, that doesn’t stop mom and dad from passing on an important lesson or two. Much like Contreras is teaching his children to be thankful, Long, a customer service executive with Southern Payroll and Bookkeeping, uses the holidays to demonstrate the value of service to her children.

Each year, Long and her three children (ages 7, 8 and 16) pack several shoeboxes with deodorant, dry shampoo, a hairbrush, wet wipes and other essentials, as well as fresh fruit and assorted snacks. They then drive through downtown Chattanooga, along Rossville Boulevard and into East Ridge, giving the boxes and bottled water to people who appear to need them.

Long says most of the individuals are thankful for what they receive.

“Some people have asked for prayers on the spot. One gentleman made my kids cry tears of joy when we returned to our SUV. He was a veteran and really down on his luck. He said he was bathing in creeks and eating from dumpsters. We prayed for him and the kids handed him two boxes. He was a sweet man.”

While some children pester their parents with pleas for a new toy or video game, Long says hers ask for new shoes long before they need them so there will be plenty of boxes come December.

“They look forward to it each year,” she says. “I think it’s their favorite part of the holidays.”

Mitchell Mizell

As a boy, Mizell loved the trappings and trimmings of Christmas, especially the pickle hunt at “nan and papa’s” house.

Each year, as Mizell’s grandparents decorated their tree, they hid a small pickle ornament among its branches. The green knickknack blended well with the color of the tree’s limbs, Mizell recalls, making it difficult to find.

In a desperate bid to earn a prize from a basket of toys, Mizell and his siblings and cousins would crowd around the tree and hunt for the covert ornament.

“My dad would often shout, ‘I’m looking at it right now,’ from the couch, which sparked a bit of frustration in us,” recalls Mizell, a customer service representative with SouthEast Bank on Chestnut Street. “However, as we began to point it out, we were able to choose a prize out of the basket.”

The rewards usually consisted of candy, snacks and coloring books, which Mizell says might not seem like much but were truly magical.

After Mizell grew up and married, he and his wife adopted the tradition in their home. Their pickle ornament is shiny, and therefore easier to find, but the hunt is as fun as it ever was, Mizell says.

“We love to have friends and family over to see our decorations and hunt for the pickle.”

Mizell’s nan and papa are among the visitors who take part in the ritual.

“It was one of my favorite holiday traditions and I wanted to carry it on.”

Lya Kimbrough

Families create deep connections and give holidays a special meaning when they pass traditions down through the generations. Just as the pickle ornament summons fond memories for Mizell, a new pair of pajamas takes Kimbrough, capital access director at The Company Lab in Chattanooga, back to the Christmas mornings of her childhood.

Growing up, Kimbrough usually slept in whatever T-shirt and pair of shorts she could scrounge up. But on Christmas Eve, she’d eagerly slip into the new pajamas her mother had bought for her.

“When I was 5 or 6, my mom began laying new pajamas on the living room couch for me to sleep in. I never looked at it as a tradition, I just got super excited to see what pair she bought for me because of how comfy they were.”

Now a mother herself, Kimbrough still remembers the pleasure of diving between sheets in her new pajamas and plans to buy her daughter a pair every year for Christmas Eve.

She also intends to buy a matching pair for herself.

“My mom couldn’t afford to do that but she still made sure I was happy,” Kimbrough says. “And I was. I hope that will be the case for my daughter.”

TJ Tate

Few things go together as well as Christmas and music. Just hearing a favorite carol or jingle can muster a swell of holiday spirit.

For Tate, director of conservation for the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, listening to one particular record sparks the joy of the season: “A Partridge Family Christmas Album.”

Packed with popular tunes like “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Frosty the Snowman” and other melodic merriment, “A Partridge Family Christmas Album” was the bestselling holiday album of 1971.

Tate’s family bought the album when she was 3 and her sister was 5, and made it as much of a staple of their celebration as leaving out cookies and milk for Santa.

As a needle traced the grooves of the record, Tate and her sister would accompany the Partridge Family on percussion.

“I’d play a tambourine, and my sister would shake maracas as we danced around the dining room table and sang as loudly as possible,” Tate remembers. “The record eventually became old and scratched, but every year, we continued to dance and sing – including the parts that would skip.”

Tate says her favorite track was “Rockin’ Round the Christmas Tree,” although she insists “Blue Christmas” is just as memorable for being shrouded in thick melancholy.

“It really is the most depressing rendition ever sung,” she laughs.

Fifty years later, Tate still plays “A Partridge Family Christmas Album” every holiday season, although the recording now sits in her Spotify playlist rather than on her turntable. And her daughter, sister and nieces join her in carrying on the tradition – with one exception.

“As we grew older, the dancing stopped,” Tate says.

David Carroll

Carroll says he and his wife and sons have a holiday tradition he’d bet no one else does: belting out the songs on “A Partridge Family Christmas Album.”

While one might marvel that more than one Scenic City household is rockin’ round the Christmas tree with the Partridges, Carroll and his sons have another tradition their wives find just as mystifying.

“Ever since our sons were little, we play the same music videos every Christmas eve: ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ by Hall and Oates, ‘Frosty the Snowman’ by Leon Redbone and Dr. John, ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ by the Muppets and John Denver, ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ by Randy Travis and about a dozen others. We make the same comments every year and laugh at the same parts.”

Carroll singles out the Hall and Oates video as especially tacky, with the pop duo dressed in garish red and green and acting silly.

“I imagine somebody at RCA Records insisted they put out a Christmas song. And I’m guessing they really didn’t want to do it, so they made the goofiest video of all time, saying, ‘Who cares? Nobody will ever see this!’ Yet here we are, watching it every Christmas Eve,” Carroll says.

Carroll and his sons also watch a few non-Christmas videos. While he might have originally included them by mistake, he says they still enjoy pointing out that Jefferson Starship’s drummer in “We Built This City” looks like their dentist with long hair, and that the Rolling Stones already looked really, really old when they put out “Start Me Up” in the 1980s.

Now that Carroll’s sons are married, he says they make their wives suffer through their cheesy video marathon with them. “If they can endure that, then they can put up with us for a long time to come.”

Rosimar Nieves

As Christmas approaches each year, Nieves turns her thoughts to the Dominican Republic, where her mother grew up without electricity and washed clothes in a river near their home in the country.

Later, Nieves’ mother became a choreographer and taught traditional dance throughout the island nation, while her father designed costumes and sets for the drama department of the University of Puerto Rico. After he joined the U.S. Navy and moved his family to Washington State, he and his wife raised their children in a household that was proud of its heritage.

Being steeped in tradition helped Nieves and her sister, Jashira, cope with the struggles they experienced as first-generation Americans. One of these customs was the family’s scaled down version of Parranda Navideno, a Christmastime fiesta.

“Think of Christmas caroling on steroids,” Nieves, the rural outreach and program manager for The Company Lab, says. “You start at one house, where you sing, dance and eat, and then everyone there joins you as you go to the next house, where you continue to celebrate. This continues until the end of the night, when there’s usually a big block party.”

When Nieves and Jashira were little, their parents would awaken them on Christmas morning with parranda music and enter their rooms with maracas, conga drums and guiros. (A guiro is a notched, hollowed out gourd across which the player drags a stick.)

Today, Nieves and her sister keep the “Parranda Navideno” going by blasting parranda music and jumping into bed with their parents on Christmas morning.

“Everyone wakes up in a great mood, ready to open gifts and eat traditional food,” she smiles. “It bonds us and keeps our customs alive.”

Dan Gilmore

Whether a holiday tradition has stretched across generations or existed for only a few years, there was a moment when it began, possibly without anyone realizing it would become an enduring part of the season.

When Gilmore, an employment law attorney with Squire Strategies, accompanied his wife as she placed wreaths on the markers of her relatives who are buried at the Chattanooga National Cemetery, he wasn’t prepared for the emotional gut punch he’d experience as he looked at the details etched into the stone.

“Each marker provides the name, branch of service and year of death, which made it more personal for me,” he says.

Gilmore and his wife also placed wreaths on many other markers. He says placing wreaths on the markers of soldiers who died in the Civil War was shattering.

“Thinking of those young men who died far from their home and loved ones, never imagining their final resting place would be among us, broke my heart,” Gilmore says. “I had the same reaction when visiting the U.S. cemetery in Tunisia, where those who died in North Africa during World War II are buried. Each man had a life and a story that ended too early due to war.”

Gilmore says he plans to volunteer again this year and possibly include his grandsons so they, too, can appreciate the sacrifice people who never knew them made on their behalf.

Alison Lebovitz

Now that Lebovitz – a TV host, speaker and author – and her husband are empty nesters, they appreciate the opportunity this time of year offers to look back at their family’s Chanukah traditions.

As they light a menorah and consume potato latkes, they reminisce about when they wouldn’t allow their three boys (now ages 22, 20 and 18) to open their gifts until after they’d lit the candles and sang a traditional Chanukah song, usually in Hebrew.

Lebovitz says one of her favorite Chanukah memories is when her sons were around 10, 8 and 6 and she arbitrarily decided wrapping their gifts was a waste of both time and paper.

“Spreading it over eight nights was tedious,” she says. “So, the first night of Chanukah, my husband and I tried something new: We called them into our bedroom, pretending they were in trouble, and instead handed each of them a large garbage bag full of unwrapped gifts and said, ‘Happy Chanukah! All eight nights in one bag!’ They were confused and amused in equal measure.”

Lebovitz says the most sacred part of Chanukah for her family is acknowledging their many blessings. To express their gratefulness, they find a way to give back, whether it’s adopting a family for Christmas, donating presents to an angel tree or giving gifts through a local nonprofit that serves children and families.

“We’ve always known giving truly is better than receiving,” she says.

Alexis Willis

As a commercial Realtor with Second Story, Willis spends a lot of time talking with people on the phone. She also contends daily with the emotional highs and lows of cold calling.

She says this leaves her with very little bandwidth for dealing with people at her house during the holidays, so instead of inviting family and friends over for a party or meal, she sends her two daughters to relatives, locks her door and spends the day alone.

This might be the antithesis of what many people consider to be an appropriate way to spend a holiday, but Willis is no Scrooge. Instead, she spends every other day of each year opening her home to friends and family who need an emotional sanctuary.

“My house has become the place to be,” she says. “It’s a place of peace. When they come here, they usually end up falling asleep on my sofa. So when someone is having a bad day, they’ll call, ask if I’m home, and I’ll say, ‘Yes, and I have a bottle of wine. Come sit on my sofa.’”

Willis will also prepare a meal for her guests. “I’m from New Orleans, and cooking is how we show love to others,” she says.

But come Christmas Day, the kitchen – and the sofa – are closed.

From celebrating a no-present Christmas by baking all day (Briana Garza, founder of Chatt Taste Food Tour, and her son), to writing letters in notebooks placed around the house where family has gathered (Ross Katayama, council coordinator for the Chattanooga Chamber), to playing a vicious game of Dirty Santa in which a participant might receive a gift card containing no funds (an anonymous guest at a recent Chamber luncheon), many other Chattanoogans celebrate the holidays in myriad ways.

And in each case, these same individuals wish their neighbors a healthy and happy holiday season.

“Whatever you celebrate and however you choose to celebrate it,” Lebovitz says, “may it be full of peace, love and joy.”