The Whitaker’s home becomes a Christmas wonderland each year
The following story appeared in the November/December edition of Vicksburg Living. For more information on Vicksburg Living or to subscribe to Vicksburg’s premier lifestyle magazine, call 601-636-4545.
As the sun began to fade, the twinkling lights on the Christmas garland around the front door sparkled like stars in the night.
The illumination was inviting, giving those who were to enter a glimpse of what was to follow at Murray and Martha Whitaker’s home.
Martha says decorating for the holidays has always been a “challenge,” but that’s just because she likes to change things up every year.
Martha has a creative spirit and it is evident in everything she does. Getting ready for Christmas is just another way that showcases her talents.
Both Murray and Martha are Vicksburg natives and, upon returning to their hometown following Murray’s cardiology residency, the couple decided to make their home on property that had been in Martha’s family for generations.
“We came back here so our children would have a sense of place and an understanding of where they came from,” Martha said.
Nestled in a forest of trees, Martha’s great uncle, Walt Perry, purchased the acreage the house sits on in 1902.
“He had borrowed some of the money from his mother and some from his sister, my grandmother, Sweet, so years later it ended up being deeded to my brother and sister and me,” Martha said.
Since they were no longer living in Vicksburg, Martha bought her siblings’ shares.
Martha said the original home that was on the property was not restored, as much as she and Murray “just built a new one on top of the old one.”
Vicksburg architect Skip Tuminello was hired to draw the plans, making sure to retain the feel of the original home’s southern charm.
And while several heirloom pieces belonging to members of Martha’s family are part of the interior decor, including an old nail scale and a stand-up desk from her Uncle Rig’s lumber yard, doors from her great-grandfather’s store on Washington Street and a half tester bed that had belonged to her aunt, it is what is outside that is greatly cherished, Martha said.
“The most meaningful parts really involve the history of the house site. There are wonderful old trees, bulbs my grandmother planted, a pre-Civil War smokehouse, a barn turned stable from Uncle Walt’s days and an old crank generator just to name a few.”
Living in a place steeped in family history, it makes sense the Whitakers celebrate the holidays with several long-held traditions, one of which was inspired from when Murray and Martha were living away from home.
“When Murray was a cardiology fellow in Chapel Hill, North Carolina we were invited to a Christmas Eve party at the parent’s home of our next-door neighbor,” Martha said, adding, “Anyone who has spent holidays 13 hours from the nearest relative knows just how precious those invitations are.”
As the chairman of the business school at the University of North Carolina, Martha said, she expected her friend’s parents would be hosting a formal event, and she was right. Everyone was dressed nicely since they had come from church services.
During the evening, Martha said, drinks were served and then dinner arrived. To her surprise, it was pizza, which was served right out of the box.
The couple had no problem with the informal meal, especially since everyone was having a good time.
“Besides, what could be a more perfect dinner before a day of traditional Christmas food and far too many other things to do?” Martha said.
And it is for those reasons, she said, and in remembrance of all of the “sweet people and their kindness” all those years ago, the Whitakers serve pizza on Christmas Eve.
Another long-held tradition observed by the Whitakers is one that was actually started when Martha’s mother was a child.
“The oldest tradition we continue to practice came from my mother’s family so I’m guessing it was around when she was a little girl. It’s that small children were allowed to open one gift of their choice on Christmas Eve,” Martha said.
“When I was a little girl our mother usually ‘suggested’ a particular gift and we usually fell for it. Predictably that gift was almost always pajamas to ensure we looked our best for Christmas morning photos,” Martha said. “I don’t remember when we finally caught on but I don’t think my daughters fell for it more than once. They always looked forward to it and spent a lot of time for days before selecting the one to open on Christmas Eve.
The Whitakers have two daughters, Holly and Ellen.
Holly and her husband Matt live in Jackson, where she works as the creative director for Invitation Magazines. The couple has three children Kate, Luke and Gabe.
Ellen works in marketing at Bloomsbury Publishing and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
It was after the birth of Holly, Martha said, that another Christmas tradition began.
“For our oldest daughter’s first Christmas her godfather sent her a beautiful Victorian angel tree topper and wrote on the card “To Holly: A Christmas Angel for Our Little Angel” so it naturally sat on top of the tree several years,” Martha said.
Eight years later, after the birth of Ellen, Martha wanted her youngest daughter to also have a tree topper.
Therefore, as a result of having two tree toppers, it was decided that they would be alternated annually. A list was even created as a reminder, Martha said.
“The list is still there and they still take turns,” Martha said, even though both girls are grown.
Through the years, traditions were added, including the growing collection of Peanuts characters.
Martha said Murray has always loved the Peanuts gang, so several years ago, after Hallmark came out with battery operated Peanuts characters that played a Christmas carol on a musical instrument, it became a must to collect the whole set, which includes Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, Schroder, and Charlie Brown.
“The grandchildren absolutely love them,” Martha said, so the Peanuts musicians are set up on the fireplace playing Christmas music throughout the season.
Handmade Christmas cards began as a tradition when the girls were young.
Martha said the cards were different each year with some involving a lot of cutting, while others were all about glue and glitter. As the girls got older, Martha said, sometimes she had to be satisfied with just reproducing something they had drawn. And then there was the year, she said, it was just a photo of their beloved dog, Sargent, with reindeer antlers drawn on him.
Eventually, Martha was forced to send out store-bought cards since the girls were gone. But now that there are grandchildren in the picture, Martha has a new supplier.
“Two years ago our grandchildren were old enough to paint Christmas trees for our cards, and I’m always so tickled to send them out. It seems like a small gift going to our friends and family.”
Ten years ago, Martha decided to add another tradition to the holidays, which were Christmas crackers.
“I thought they were festive looking and fun for Christmas dinner,” she said.
Over the course of the years, Martha bought different brands, but she said the best were the ones with little bells with Christmas sheet music so everyone had a “part” to play.
“We are not musical people, in fact, tone-deaf would be more like it, but it was so much fun. Those crackers even had a little tissue paper crown,” Martha said.
It just so happened that was the first year her future son-in-law had joined them for Christmas dinner.
“It’s a wonder he proposed,” Martha said.
The Christmas decorations in the Whitaker house are a blend of fun and formal.
While the grandkids love their grandfather’s performing Peanuts characters, there is also a beautiful nativity set and a North Pole village comprised of tiny houses, many of which involve some type of motion.
“I’ve realized through the years how much Murray really enjoys the village. His days at the hospital aren’t what you call seasonal so when he comes home and we turn the lights on the tree and the village the Christmas season comes alive for him,” Martha said.
As far as the Christmas tree, Martha referred to her ornaments as a “hodgepodge of old and new, shiny and dull, fragile and unbreakable.”
“Of course, the homemade/school-made ornaments my daughters made are the most sentimental ornaments of all. I never threw one away and I’m so thankful I didn’t,” Martha said. “I think the most pitiful looking one is a paper plate angel, and I’m not even sure which child made it, but she’s probably the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.
With Thanksgiving just weeks from Christmas, Martha said, she decided a few years back to forgo a traditional Christmas dinner and now plans a menu that can be prepared ahead of time. Of course a few of the family favorites, like, Martha’s grandmother’s cranberry salad, are always included.
While much of Murray’s time is spent at the hospital, Martha has been active in the community.
She served as the editor of “Ambrosia,” the second cookbook produced by the Junior Auxiliary of Vicksburg, and co-editor of “Moore Groceries,” a cookbook with proceeds benefitting the Old Court House Museum. She is a JAV life member, was a member of the Hester Flowers Garden Club and Antique Club, and was an active parent when her girls attended the Vicksburg Catholic School.
And, in support of her husband, Martha was involved every year with the American Heart Association Ball fundraiser that used to be held.
Martha continues to play an active role in the community. For the last several years, she and Murray have taken turns with Dr. Paul Pierce IV and his wife Jill in hosting a Christmas party for all the people who work in cardiology services at Merit Health River Region.
Though the party is fun with plenty of food, games and “time well-spent with some very nice people who really like working together,” the highlight of the evening is finding out who will win the big screen television.
During the course of the evening, a drawdown, as such, Martha said, is played with five great gifts awarded, one of which is the TV.
The prize may seem extravagant, but Martha said, “Each and every one of them work long stressful hours all year long, and it’s our way of thanking them for all they do.”
After the grandchildren were born, the Whitakers did a little “tweaking” to their home to accommodate for their growing family and the changes look seamless.
Martha describes her decor as a mixed bag, combining antique pieces with things fresh and new.
“A few weeks ago we were with my great-nieces from Dallas and one referred to our house as magical,” Martha said. “I thought that was the best description I had ever heard. Maybe a little exaggerated but coming from her I’m willing to take it.
No doubt when Kate, Luke and Gabe come to visit their Emme and Boss, their grandparents’ house is magical, especially during the holidays when all three children gather around the large island in the kitchen to make gingerbread houses.