Christmas Collections: Christmas in Tupelo

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by Kristina Domitrovich // photos by Lindsay Pace

Whether it’s nutcrackers, themed ornaments, Christmas mice or a corner full of snowmen, we all have our favorite holiday decorations. These are the items that are mourned when lost in a dark corner of the attic and celebrated when found, are most preciously packed away for the next year’s festivities and are as familiar as a favorite Christmas song.

The following story is a portion of our three-part Christmas Collections series. Some of these collections include antique items, some can fit in the palm of your hand, but all are sentimental and embody the spirit of Christmas in the eyes of the beholder. The following story highlights a couple who has curated a Christmas collection over their lifetimes.

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In the timespan of just a few weeks, Don and Susan McGukin eloped in Hot Springs, Arkansas, moved to Tupelo and started a business, Don’s family medicine practice. That was about 23 years ago. The couple met in their college town in Georgia, where they’re both from — Don’s house in college was next to Susan’s apartment, and one day they stumbled into one another.

In 2019, the two celebrated 22 years in Tupelo and spent their first Christmas in their own home. “It’s so ironic,” Susan said, because the two have always made the holiday voyage back to their families in Georgia, usually alternating which days to spend with their different families. But last year was different, after having lost their parents.

“We were like, ‘We’re going to start a new tradition, and we’re going to be at home,” she said.

They decided to make the most of their first Christmas together in Tupelo, going all out with the decorations; which, as it turns out, was pretty easy to pull together. While they usually decorate each Christmas with their main tree no matter what, they wait to put it up until two to three weeks before Christmas because it’s a real tree.

“If you put them up too early,” Don chuckled, “they just become fire hazards!”

Between their individual collections, like Susan’s collection of Santa Clauses, the house was decked out for Christmas.

“I had no idea 25 years ago I would collect Santas that long,” Susan said. “It’s just kind of fun.”

One year, a friend suggested Susan group them all together, so now, she puts them up in the same room. Her favorite is an Irish Santa, dressed in green, holding shamrocks and rocking a leprechaun hat.

“Don and I are both into genealogy,” she said. “We both have Irish ancestors, so that one’s just different and special.”

In true genealogy-loving fashion, a part of the decorations include a collection of letters from Don’s grandmother. When his family was going through her things after she passed, he came across all of her letters, which his family was just going to throw away.

“The stamps and the dates and just the history of them,” he said. “That was much more important in that era than it ever has been in my lifetime.”

The letters date back to the early 1900s, and Don usually displays the Christmas notes during the season, last year placing them on a separate tree. They called this one the “Vintage Tree,” because down below are toys from Don and Susan’s childhoods, a few dolls and trucks and tractors. On the tree itself, in addition to the letters, are bubble lights. Bubble lights, which Don remembers seeing on his grandmother’s Christmas tree, is a holiday staple for the two, who enjoy watching the liquid bubbling and imitating a candle’s flame on the tree.

“Not vintage lights, because we wouldn’t want to put electric vintage lights on it,” she said with a laugh.

“But they’re replicas of what were used back (then),” Don added.

Bubble lights illuminated the tree with the letters, “So that was sort of a tribute to her,” Don said about his grandmother. They usually add a bubble-light candolier on the mantel as well.

The two also love the outdoors, both avid gardeners — Susan currently works with the Mississippi State Extension Services Master Gardener program, after teaching for 18 years, along with private tutoring — which Don has really been enjoying this year, in his first year of retirement. And they both enjoy bird watching. A few years ago, this hobby turned into a new portion of Christmas decorations, too, as they would stumble upon a bird — “we like the ones that look like real birds,” Don added — they’d pick one up here and there. Over time, they decided they had enough birds they could decorate a tree.

Each year, they tend to host a get together with neighbors and friends, and give out their favorite holiday goodies. Together, they make homemade fudge with Velveeta — which Susan assures only tastes like chocolate — cheese wafers and chocolate-covered nuts, plus a slew of other sweets. For their Christmas dinner, which Susan used to make with their families, they stick to the classics: turkey, dressing, Susan’s sweet potato soufflé and a pound cake “the secret is you measure out everything exact,” she said.

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