Christmas tradition

Carolyn and Lester Mitchell stand next to the Santa decoration in front of their Grand Boulevard home.

For more than 60 years, a large plastic Santa Claus figure has signaled the start of the holiday season for many in Greenwood.

“He’s just part of Christmas in Greenwood and has been for a long time for anybody who has lived here for any length of time,” said Carolyn Mitchell.

The Santa is an annual Christmas decoration at the home of Carolyn and Lester Mitchell on Grand Boulevard.

“He’s been around a long time,” Carolyn said. “It’s not Christmas until Santa makes his appearance.”

The house at the corner of Grand Boulevard and West Adams Avenue has been in Carolyn’s family since it was built in 1947.

Her father and mother, Millard and Marguerite Billings, moved to Greenwood when Carolyn was a year old and had the red brick home built in the subsequent year.

Millard and Marguerite Billings are now both deceased — Millard died in 1990 and Marguerite, in 2010. The Mitchells reside in the home and continue a tradition started many years ago by Carolyn’s father.

• • • 

Millard Billings loved Christmas and was well known for it.

“Mr. Billings was the epitome of Christmas,” Lester said. “He loved it. It was his favorite time of year. He looked forward to it from Christmas day until the next year, and he could tell you about each Christmas. He remembered every one of them, and that was him — Christmas.”

Millard and Marguerite Billings

Millard and Marguerite Billings enjoyed Christmastime.

Millard planted a cedar tree at the corner of his front yard near the boulevard and decorated it with strands of colorful Christmas lights.

“He started decorating it with lights right after we moved in the house,” Carolyn said.

While she can’t remember the year her father purchased the now-locally famous Santa, Carolyn can recall “going with him to buy Santa when I was a little girl.”

Christmas tradition

The Santa Claus at the Mitchells’ home can be seen at night. This year, the Santa is wearing a face mask in accordance with the governor’s mandate for Leflore County.

“He bought it after Christmas on a Christmas sale,” she said. “And he put him up for the next year, and then he started putting Santa out by the tree and decorating it.”

The Santa stands 61 inches tall — about 5-foot-1 — and is 24 inches across. The figure is dressed in the traditional red and white fur-lined attire of St. Nicholas and is carrying a bag of toys to give out to the good boys and girls on Christmas Eve night.

When Carolyn first saw the Santa towering over her as a child, she looked up at the Christmas decoration and thought, “Wow. This is going to be great. We’re going to have a real Santa,” she said.

Millard would decorate for the holidays right before Greenwood’s Christmas parade.

“He’d light (the cedar tree) the day of the Christmas parade,” said Carolyn.

One year, Millard decided to chain the Santa to the tree, just in case any mischievous youngsters got the idea for a Christmas heist.

Sure enough, one did.

In the home, the living room features a large window with a view of the front yard. Carolyn said her parents were sitting in the living room one day and watched as a car stopped in front of their home.

“Somebody got out and grabbed Santa and took off running with him and got to the end of the chain, and, of course, Santa stopped and the kid kept going and bounced across the yard,” she said. “They got a good laugh out of that. Daddy talked about that for years.”

After her father passed away in 1990, Carolyn’s mother didn’t want to decorate that year. Carolyn convinced her mother that they should, saying “Daddy would want that tree decorated.”

They had a sign made that said the decorated cedar tree was dedicated to the memory of Millard, and it was placed outside in front of the tree.

“We’ve tried to keep up with the tradition,” Carolyn said.

• • • 

For many years, the Mitchells resided in Memphis, which is where they raised their family.

They moved back to Carolyn’s hometown in 2008 to take care of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s.

Since her passing, the Mitchells have continued the Santa tradition.

“We’ve tried to keep old Santa going,” said Carolyn.

The cedar tree in the Mitchells’ front yard today is actually the second one Carolyn’s father planted after the first grew too big. Now the second cedar tree is also too big to decorate.

“We stopped decorating it years ago. It was blowing the circuits because we had to have so many lights,” said Carolyn.

The bottom limbs have been trimmed so the tree doesn’t hinder traffic.

Christmas tree

A large lighted Christmas tree sits on the Mitchells’ porch.

“We just couldn’t bring ourselves to cut it down,” she said.

They still have a decorated tree out. The Mitchells’ porch features a large lighted Christmas tree.

The Santa’s paint is faded in some places, and the Mitchells have had it touched up. He also features white Gorilla tape, which is holding some of his coat’s white fur trim together.

“We’ve had to patch him over the years to keep him going,” said Carolyn. “He’s just part of Christmas. It really wouldn’t be Christmas without him. That’s why we try so hard to keep him preserved.”

Carolyn recently posted a picture of herself standing by the Santa, which is donning a face mask this year in accordance with the governor’s mandate for Leflore County.

She said she received so many comments from people saying how much they look forward to seeing the Santa every year.

“I didn’t realize how many people look for him,” Carolyn said.

Her husband added, “We have a surprising number of people slow down to take his picture.”

The Santa not only evokes feelings of Yuletide cheer for the many who pass by it each Christmas season, but it also continues a family’s holiday tradition and brings them cheerful memories of the one who started it.

“My dad just loved Christmas; that was his favorite time of year,” said Carolyn. “On Christmas Eve, he would get under the Christmas tree and count the gifts, and if there was not an even number, he’d run out to the drug store and buy a box of chocolate-covered cherries. ... He just enjoyed decorating and loved watching the people look at it.”

 Contact Ruthie Robison at 581-7235 or rrobison@gwcommonwealth.com.

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