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Christmas Tree Fund history runs deep

NATCHEZ — The Children’s Christmas Tree Fund — or the Poor Children’s Christmas Tree in its less politically correct days — got its start in the same place this article did — The Natchez Democrat.

Sometime between 1900 and 1906, Democrat Publisher James Lambert dreamed up the idea of raising money to buy gifts for less fortunate children in the area.

Lambert didn’t live much longer after the creation of the tree, but family members and employees of The Democrat carried on the tradition until approximately 1970.

The Christmas Tree Fund as we know it now was organized, promoted and lovingly doted on for years by Katherine Killelea.

Killelea was a neighbor and close friend of James Lambert’s family. She began working with the project at age 13, but took over completely in the 1970s as an adult.

And faithful doesn’t begin to describe her work.

Killelea saw the fund through its biggest changes, including the integration of the white children’s tree and the black children’s tree.

She saw the number of children receiving gifts shrink from approximately 500 to 350, based mainly on funds available. And she asked Catholic Charities to get involved in identifying the children who needed the gifts.

In 2006, Killelea passed the tree fund back into the hands of the Lambert family.

Caroline McDonough and Beth Mallory Foster — great-great-granddaughters of James Lambert — took charge.

This year, the effort is being led by McDonough and Johnny Junkin.

In the 1920s, the Christmas Tree Fund and the Santa Claus Committee joined forces.

The committee — a group of businessmen who raise money for the project and provide stand-in Santas when the real one is unavailable — helps make Christmas Eve special for the children.

The men ride in a parade of cars through town with Santa before arriving at the site of the Christmas tree to hand out gifts.

Most recently, the distribution site has been Braden School, but the Christmas Tree Fund got its start at the former Baker Grand Theatre downtown.

In years past, members of the Lambert family and volunteers would meet at the theater early on Christmas Eve to bag toys.

Each bag receives several toys, fruit and a bag of candy.

McDonough starts buying in early November and shops three or four times a week until Christmas Eve.

Everything so far has been bought on the organization’s credit card, and McDonough will rely on future donations to pay it off.

The group raises between $10,000 and $12,000, said Junkin who handles the fund’s finances. Junkin is Lambert’s great grandson.

Junkin creates a budget for the project and determines how many children he thinks the fund can serve. Recently that number has been right at 300 children.

Money is spent as soon as it is donated, and very little rolls over to the next year.

Donations to the fund are collected from anyone and everyone who wants to donate.

None of the history, planning or worries matter to the children ages 1 to 10 who’ll be coming through Braden’s auditorium later this month.

To them, it’s about the toys, the candy and Santa.

And though they don’t realize it yet, the Christmas Tree Fund is teaching them a lesson.

People care. And Christmas wishes do come true.

“When I see the little kids’ faces get excited, it’s worth every bit of the work,” McDonough said, tearing up, during the giveaway last year.

“It is about helping others. I don’t like to see people without.”