Christmas is about traditions and warm family memories.
Maybe it’s a church choir in matching robes celebrating a holy night, a joyful world, the arrival of three wise men, and a baby resting in a simple manger in Bethlehem.
It could be a rerun of the classic story of Clark W. Griswold Jr., Cousin Eddie, Aunt Bethany and Uncle Lewis who together dodge a crazed squirrel, a collapsible turkey and a delivery from the Jelly of the Month Club.
It might be a shopping trip for just the right Christmas tree before decorating it with lights and ornaments that have been in the family for as long as we can remember.
These rituals are part of us, part of our memories, parts of stories we look forward to hearing every December — the story of a jolly old elf and eight tiny reindeers and the birth of the Christ child.
This particular season is one of change and change does not come easy.
We were meandering through Peachtree Mall, approaching the center ring where Santa Claus hangs out. My 10-year-old led the way. She stopped and turned back to me with an announcement.
“Santa Claus isn’t here,” she said.
A man with a white beard wearing a red suit was sitting where Santa usually sits but Kamryn was right. It wasn’t the Santa we had known since we carried her up to meet him eight or nine years ago.
Another Santa was sitting in that chair.
On and off since 1985, John T. Belt has been our Santa. Commuting from the mid-west every year, he stayed with friends in Harris County so he could greet children who waited in line to tell him what they wanted under the tree on Christmas morning.
He suffered a heart attack a few months ago. He probably still knows who’s naughty and nice but Santa isn’t able to come to town this time around.
In the years that he was Santa, he buried his wife and reared three children. He started hit seasonal career at a clothing store in Pennsylvania. In 1994, he did a Christmas season at a large mall in Cleveland. He later made it to Cumberland Mall in Atlanta before coming to Columbus.
It was a lovely match.
“I’m comfortable and I feel at home,” he told me.
Kamryn and the other children were comfortable with him too. She had never sat on Santa’s knee until we took her to Peachtree Mall. It wasn’t love at first sight though. She was restless so he pulled out a holiday book to read to her.
Bad idea. When he was opening the book he accidently hit her in the face with the cover of his storybook. Once she calmed down, a long friendship was forged. That’s why our dining room table is covered with an assortment of framed photographs of the two of them.
Others miss him too. One longtime visitor has asked mall management at Peachtree to forward Christmas cards and Get Well cards to their cherished friend.
We look at our collection of Santa photos and we hope John T. Belt is well enough to return next December. Down in Georgia, he’s special to a lot of girls and boys and their parents.
A few years ago, Tony Adams, a former newspaper reporter in Columbus, did an interview with Santa.In that conversation he shared an encounter with a young boy in New Jersey.
“The little boy just walked into the side way into the set, through the exit, and walked up to me. First he asked me if I was really Santa, and then he turned around and walked off. A few minutes later he walked on again, and he said: ‘Why must men dress up and pretend to be Santa?’ Then he turned and walked off again. He came back a third time and he said: ‘Why do people get divorced?’ And I thought to myself, I know where he's coming from now. And he turned and walked away. That really tugged at my heart.”
The other night we went to visit the Ludy’s, a family who loves Christmas, its familiar music and the colorful lights that shine in honor of the season.
Jerry Ludy and his family live at 5784 Ironstone Drive, where since 1995 they have been thrilling children of all ages with their spectacular neighborhood light display.A lot of us put up an old-fashioned Christmas tree in the living room and some folks string a few lights up outside or blow up holiday inflatables on the front lawn.
Jerry Ludy doesn’t stop there.
He was 12 years old when he painted a Santa face on the front of a paper grocery sack and wrapped C-9 lights around a wooden frame. That was the beginning and this Christmas season will probably be the end. He recently posted that sad news on the Ludy Facebook page and news soon spread. Ludy is giving out few details other the fact that he’s sad and tired and plans to take next Christmas off.
It’s a family project. He and son Keith conceive and construct most of the ingenious displays in their front yard, on their roof and in adjoining properties.
And it ain’t cheap.
A controller may cost $1,100. Circuit boards more than a $1,000. Pixel lights cost $2,000. Power supplies cost $1,350. Georgia Power bills are through the roof and the cost of our electricity will go up in January.
This has been a trying year. Repairs have been costly. The weather has been dismal. After more than 22 years, the Ludy family is worn out. Maybe the light show will return some day but for now they plan to unscrew the bulbs after New Year’s.
Meanwhile, they’re still raising money for the Make-a-Wish Foundation, hoping people driving by will continue drop cash into buckets. He’s talking about raising another $25,000 this year.
Between rain showers and traffic jams, Jerry Ludy keeps a smile on his face, greeting visitors who have been coming for years. More than a few tears have been shed.
He’s not Clark Griswold Jr. He’s Jerry Ludy, keeping alive a tradition began long ago by the Quattlebaums who dwelled in Oakland Park. There’s time to drive down Ironstone Drive while the lights are still shining. Drop by. Tell the Ludys a final goodbye.