Tis the season

Published 12:01 am Sunday, November 25, 2007

NATCHEZ — It’s the faces of the children everyone remembers.

Wide-eyed, rosy cheeked, gap-toothed — they’ve come every year for more than a century to receive the only Christmas they are likely to get.

On Christmas Eve countless hours of volunteer labor is condensed to just minutes per child as the needy parade through to see Santa and receive their bag of goodies.

Email newsletter signup

But the minutes of happiness are only beginning for the children, who’ll walk away with Christmas gifts they probably thought they wouldn’t receive.

“Here Comes Santa Claus”

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 — no one reports the same date — 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.

“Oh Come All Ye Faithful”

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.

Last year, Killelea passed the tree fund back into the hands of the Lambert family.

Now, Caroline Ferguson McDonough and Beth Mallory Foster — great, great granddaughters of James Lambert — are in charge.

“Twas the Night Before Christmas”

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 Theater 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 — then and now — receives several toys, fruit and a bag of candy.

Now, McDonough spends between $30 and $40 on each bag, filling it with affordable toys from Wal-Mart.

She started 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.

“Angels we have heard on High”

Every year the fund’s organizers have no choice but to worry that the money won’t come.

“I put it on a credit card and just pray that people will donate,” McDonough said. “I was so nervous last year.”

But the money came. The group raised between $10,000 and $12,000, said Johnny 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. And each bit counts, Killelea said then and now.

“We really do need donations,” she said in 1986. “I worry. I worry every year, but especially this year.

“But you know, somehow people seem to always rally forth when you need them.”

And those are the angels, she said this week, that do so much.

“Sleep Well, Little Children”

But none of the history or the planning or the worries matter to the children ages 1 to 10 who’ll be coming through Braden’s auditorium in a 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.

“It’s a beautiful feeling,” Killelea said. “I can’t tell you how beautiful it is.”