Holi-Days of Our Lives: 99 years of holiday evolution in Ocala

Photography by Chris Redd

From feasts to fashion, holiday traditions and trends have spanned the globe for thousands of years. Although celebrated differently amongst differing countries, amongst varying religious groups and from generation to generation, holidays are an integral part of almost everyone’s life.

Captured in our memories are smells, tastes, sights and mishaps. However, depending on which era you grew up in, those experiences can vastly differ. These unique perspectives are what separates how little Sally will remember her holidays compared to her mother’s – or her mother’s mother’s.

From the absence of Christmas lights to the day of touch screen gadgets, here’s a glimpse into how eight Ocala residents, spanning in ages from 7 to 92, recall their holidays.

Edna Kilmark

by: Kelli Fuqua Hart

The Roaring Twenties are most remembered for its dance fads, the invention of radio and the Peanut & Jelly Sandwich. Calvin Coolidge was president and Mickey Mouse made his debut in Steamboat Willie.

For Mabel and Rhodes Nash, the greatest thing to come out of the 1920’s was their daughter, Edna. Now, 92-years-old, Edna Kilmark reflects back on nearly a century’s worth of memories – holiday memories.

McRae, Georgia was incorporated in 1874 and was home to Edna’s grandmother, Plantation owner Christian McRae, of whom the town is named after. In the mid 1800’s, Edna’s ancestors migrated to Florida, where they took up permanent residency, eventually calling Ocala home.

Edna, currently Ocala’s oldest Royal Dame, has spent life writing, traveling and collecting some of life’s finest things, including magnificent memories.

Although she didn’t give any “walking uphill, barefoot, in the snow” stories, Edna did share what the holidays were like, growing up, in the 20th Century.

Because there were no interconnecting roadways before President Eisenhower’s highway program, travel for the holidays was daunting. When family came, they came to stay. And the only way to travel long distance was by train, which required government permission before being granted a pass.

With a combined total of 25 aunts and uncles, all of which had children of their own, the holidays for Edna were overwhelmingly populated. She recalls holidays where over 130 people were buzzing around, eating and opening packages. It was typical for families to all gather at the largest, most accommodating family home to eat and celebrate the holidays.

With many guests, comes the need for a great deal of food. Women worked together in the kitchen, preparing food that was often homegrown in gardens or purchased at small, local markets. Edna recalls some of her family’s most traditional dishes. “It seemed most of the foods we ate were wild,” she said.

Dry foods, huckleberries, guavas, rice and sweet potatoes are among the list of ingredients Edna recalls seeing year after year on her holiday table. Minced meat was another tradition for her family, not letting anything go to waste. Because residential refrigerators weren’t common until the 1950’s and 60’s, food preparation and storage was timely.

While the ladies were busy bees in the kitchen, where were the men? Edna didn’t hesitate to point out that the men would sneak away, gather together in the barn or garage, and pass around a bottle of moonshine or beer. By dinner time, she says, “the men were too drunk to even appreciate the fact they were always given the first helping and the best portions of a meal we worked so hard to prepare.”

Booze was a common holiday tradition for the men. Sadly, it meant the holidays weren’t always a happy time. Due to such heavy drinking, the men would often spend the holidays fussing or fighting. Edna chuckled, then quickly disclaimed, “It wasn’t funny to watch your relative stumble in the house drunk and fall into the Christmas tree!” She followed this statement with another quick chuckle.

It wasn’t always a Christmas tradition to have a tree in your home. It was more of a luxury or a common practice of devout Christians.  For some families, the only tree they had were community trees. Places such as schools and churches would set up a tree where people would gather. Children would be given their gift from under one of these public trees, which Edna described as “torturous.”

“Imagine your family not having much money,” she explained. You’d open a cheap, little gift while other children might receive something more spectacular.”

And by “spectacular,” she didn’t mean touchscreen gadgets and designer dolls. For a child in the 1920’s and 30’s, “spectacular” meant a bicycle or a fancy dress. Most times, Santa left useful gifts, things like underclothes, an embroidered handkerchief or stockings.

Handmade gifts such as rag-dolls, quilts, mittens and things for a young lady’s hope chest were most popular at the holidays. In fact, gifts were wrapped in fabric that could be later be used to make clothing.

Christmas ornaments were handmade as well. Edna recalls stringing cranberries and popcorn with a needle and thread to make garlands for her family tree. Paper chains were made by the children and coiled around the tree. Mothers would sometimes use their costume jewelry to add some sparkle, reflecting the flickering light from the tree candles that clipped to a tree.

“Having a Christmas tree was a real danger,” says Edna. Between the dry branches, the open flame and all of the paper garnishes, there were many incidences of house fires. Having a drunk uncle falling over tree probably didn’t help, either.

Around 12 years of age, Edna remembers the introduction of the electric light strands, which she admitted worked very poorly. The bulbs were fragile, brittle and God forbid, one light goes out and the entire strand is a goner.

Once a mother herself, Edna remembers being so poor at Christmas that she once stayed up until 2 am making balloon animals for her son, John. Up until Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward helped commercialize the holidays, making gift buying and shipping easier, it was up to the men to build toys such as wagons, horses and furniture.

Sears had a buying program in their catalog. Shoppers could buy items at “good, better or best.” Catalogs revolutionized gift giving and receiving. Once limited to wooden toys and rag dolls, children were receiving red wagons, scooters and more advanced mechanical toys.

In 92 years of life, Edna has watched the holidays change, progress and evolve from simple linen covered packages and church nativity programs to high tech gadgets and costly, commercialized holiday trends. “Less and less memories are being made,” she said with sadness.

Now, with a large family of her own, Edna focuses on family and faith at the holidays. She still gathers with her loved ones and acts as a matriarch, still encouraging memory making and togetherness. Her journey through life, with all of her many experiences and memories, is a legendary testimony that will be passed down for generations to come – much like those Orange Date Cakes.

George and Aggie Albright

by: Kelli Fuqua Hart

Holidays in the 1930’s don’t seem to have been very colorful, mainly because all of the photos we have left today are in black and white. Scenes of little girls and boys in pea coats and patent leather shoes, gathered next to family or standing next to a tinsel covered tree, is a good representation of what the holidays looked like over 80 years ago.

Ocala resident, community enthusiast, entrepreneur and philanthropist, George Albright is among this black and white generation. He remembers saddle oxfords, corn soup and growing up southern. He’s lived through decades of evolving holiday traditions and culture. Today’s e-cards and i-gifts are not part of Albright’s holiday history.

He recalls his first holiday memory, wanting an electric train, somewhere at about 5-years-old. You didn’t have stores and malls at this time. Sears, Roebuck & Company had a catalog option that made getting this train possible. “My mother and father paid five dollars for the train. They kept waiting and waiting for it to arrive at the post office, but it wasn’t until the night before Christmas that it made it’s way,” he said.

Albright remembers sneaking up to catch Santa, but instead saw his father laying the tracks for his new electric train. To this day, some 75 years later, Albright still puts this same train around the base of his family Christmas tree.

Getting an electric train was a big deal. Most children in the 30’s and 40’s got jacks, marbles, wagons or that doll whose eyes open and close. You know the one.

Aggie Albright, George’s wife, was a born in 1940 and she recalls some of these same memories. Gifts were simple. Many gifts were handmade. “We made our own clothes or gave fruit as gifts,” recalls Aggie.

Both Albright and his wife were raised in southern homes with religious ties. Many of their traditions and experiences are similar. Both recall watching their aunts and mothers cooking, from scratch, Thanksgiving dinner, while dad and the boys went hunting.

Aggie’s father was a fisherman. Her family enjoyed an untraditional spread of seafood, while George’s family prepared dishes of greens, creamed corn and fried chicken. His mother made her famous corn soup and cornbread dressing that never managed to be written down, but was learned and continues to be passed down from generation to generation.

The couple both remember what their homes looked like for the holidays. Very little decorating was done either due to a lack of funds or the fact there simply wasn’t many decorative options available then. Most decorations were something the kids made at Sunday School or something made at home.

Around the 10th of December, Albright’s family set up their real tree and began the ritual of decorating. At this time, light strands were invented and used sparingly to wrap the tree. It was always a big mess of cords and broken bulbs and the frustration of one single bulb burning out and ruining the whole bunch.

Icicles, tinsel and Angel Hair, an itchy, spun glass material used to give the impression of snow, was used on most trees. In combination with the popular trend of using all blue lights, a Christmas tree could look somewhat eerie. The Angel Hair was sharp and if you’ve ever touched it, you remember it. It had a way of getting its tiny glass fibers under your skin.

Besides the tree, decor was minimal. Albright’s mother may have hung a wreath on the door or put candles in the windows, but other than that, the holidays were more about memories and less about showmanship.

Aggie’s family line is quite an interesting one. Her mother, Louise had two sisters that married her father, William’s two brothers. Read that again slowly because it’s a tricky situation. The point is, Aggie’s family was large – and close. She had five siblings altogether and the holidays were always bountiful in presence.

Albright’s family was no different. He can remember his grandmother cooking a seemingly small 16 or 17 pound turkey and somehow managing to feed every guest. “We never knew how in the world she always made things stretch,” he said.

Large get-togethers were, and still remain, a family tradition for both George and Aggie. There were few roads for people to travel. There were no sidewalks to ride bikes on. All of the entertaining was done over the course of a few days and mainly indoors. Children were good at entertaining themselves and the adults had plenty to do to stay busy.  Albright shares a story about when his uncle brought a boxed gift home to give to grandma.

The box was wrapped so tight and so well, that grandma couldn’t open it. She struggled with the box before my other uncle grabbed it and began to open it with his pocket  knife. He sliced right through the tape and whipped open the box when feathers went flying  everywhere. Little did he know that inside the box was a set of beautiful down pillows for grandma. Pillows that were now cut wide open!

Albright also recalls one Thanksgiving when someone had convinced his grandmother that adding sausage to her stuffing would improve the flavor. He went on to say “It was so awful, that no one would eat it or ever let her forget about it.”

Funny stories about family are what make the holidays so special for George and Aggie. Faith and family are what they concentrate on, no matter how old they get or how things change around them.

The Albrights are a family of sentiment, having passed down and held on to some very special trinkets and mementos that were integral parts of their childhood holidays. From a tree topper that George’s mother made from an old doll to George’s first teddy bear, both of which are still on display every holiday, the Albright’s adore and advocate for creating memories. They’ve certainly created fond ones for their own children and grand children, as well for each other.

Tito Comas

by: Maritza Mareta

Two Cultures – One Blessed Holiday Coming to Ocala as an adult, Tito Comas has been able to build a bridge between his old Latin Christmas traditions and those of his new home.

Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Tito Comas totally and completely embraces Christmas and all that it has meant to him through the years. For Comas, graphic designer and owner of Grafito Marketing and Advertising in Ocala, Christmas is not just celebrated through New Year’s Day, but it extends all the way to Three Kings Day on January 6th.

As a child growing up in Puerto Rico, Christmas was full of traditions. “We had a schedule we followed every year,” said Comas. Comas and his family lived in San Juan but his mother’s family lived in Ponce, which is on the south coast of Puerto Rico. His father’s family lived in Mayaguez, which is on the west coast of the island. So, for as long as he can remember, until his family relocated to Ocala during the 70’s, Christmas Eve and Christmas day were always spent at the maternal grandparents house and New Year’s Eve was always celebrated at the paternal grandparent’s house.

“It was always a traveling time of the year for us. Mom and Dad would get us in the back of their station wagon and off we would go through the mountains and winding roads of the island,” said Comas. Adding, that to this day, he is not sure how his parents were able to pack all the kids, gifts and luggage in their station wagon.

Relatives would come from all over the island to gather during the holidays to share precious time together. However, the traveling would not start until after his dad had roasted a pig in their back yard, in the old traditional way, to start the holiday season.

However, when the family moved to Ocala, it all completely changed. It was a new home, new culture and the old traditions had to change to accommodate all that was now new. “It was hard. It was sad,” said Comas.

He remembers the celebrations in Puerto Rico starting two weeks before Christmas and not ending until two weeks after the Epiphany that is celebrated on the 6th of January. During their first years here, they worked hard to get their business up and running and the holidays were never the same. However, several years back, his father decided to bring back to life some of their old traditions, and started roasting a pig like he used to do in Puerto Rico. “We invite over family, friends and business associates and we all have a great time,” said Comas.

For Comas, the anticipation and fun begins in the beginning of the fall when they purchase four young pigs and care for them, monitoring the feed, until they are ready to slaughter and cook it for the holiday feast. “It is very important to keep this pig under a hundred and fifty pounds – that way it will fit in the “caja china” which is what we use to roast it,” added Comas.

Additionally, two days before the pig is cooked it is seasoned with all the traditional spices and seasonings, which includes soaking it in sour orange and rubbing it with freshly mashed garlic cloves and salt. The pig is then wrapped in plastic wrapping and stored in an ice chest until it is ready to be cooked. “It takes about four to five hours for the pig to cook, but it is worth the wait,” said Comas. He adds that in addition to all the traditional food they prepare, everybody that comes to the party brings food to share, so there is a lot of food for the celebration.

Although it was been many years later, Comas is glad he went back to his roots– to how he celebrated Christmas when he was a child. One of his sons lives in Ocala, while his other two sons live in Orlando. They all come home, with their families, bringing the family back together for the holidays, as it used to be.

Another big part of the Christmas holiday that Comas cherishes is the celebration of the Three Kings Day. It is celebrated on the 6th of January and is rich with tradition and folklore. The night before the Three Kings arrive, children go out in the yards and cut fresh grass that they leave in a shoebox, either by their bed or under the Christmas tree for the camels to eat. They also leave a bowl of water for the camels to drink, having traveled so far to deliver toys to them.

One memory Comas treasures most about Christmas, is how his paternal grandparents celebrated Three Kings Day. “It is something that has always been very important to me, in my life, that I learned from my grandparents,” said Comas.

Throughout the year, his grandparents would buy small toys and store them in the basement. Then, on Three Kings Day, they would load them all up in the back of their vehicle and drive through the mountains of Puerto Rico giving a toy to every child they saw. “I will never forget, says Comas, “how much they taught me and how it has stayed with me throughout my life – I think about that a lot.”

Comas’ grandparents taught him a great deal, especially about unselfishly giving to others. As a child, he recalls not being able to understand why his grandparents, having so many toys stored away, would not let him touch them. But as he grew older, it all started to make sense to him and he realized the importance of what his grandparents were doing.

The unselfish acts of kindness by his grandparents inspired him, and as he grew older it became important to him to be a giver – to give back to the community. “That is by far, one of the best gifts I have ever got at Christmas,” said Comas.

Danialle Riggins

by: Raven McMillan

For Ocala Attorney Danialle Riggins, it’s Thanksgiving that marks the end of every year.

“It’s better than New Years. It’s our routine,” Danialle says. “And it’s the one time of the year that everyone can get together and say ‘we’ve made it here another year.’” It’s the one time she can count on for tradition.

Gathered around a table in her mother’s dining room, garnished with the classic Thanksgiving fare, her family lifts up in prayer to express their blessings and put family first.

“As long as you’re old enough to speak, you’re old enough to articulate what you’re thankful for,” Danialle claims.

Each year, Danialle’s mother is thankful to see all of her children and grandchildren, Danialle being the youngest of five. Her father is always grateful to be healthy and strong.

What Danialle has come to appreciate are the things she hears her children being thankful for.

“What always marveled me were the things that my children said they are thankful for,” exclaimed Danialle. “A year of no punishment” or “cooking potatoes with grandma,” are among some of their most proud memories. It’s those things, things that seem simple in their minds that a parent appreciates.

Danialle has watched her family grow, continually grateful, witnessing how God has touched her life and the lives around her.

Originally from North Carolina, Danialle’s family traded in a traditional cold, winter season for a warm, southern Florida fall.

“I’ll never forget it!” Danialle reminisces. “I was 10 years old, it was our first year in Florida and we did Thanksgiving on the beach. None of us could believe it!” Usually the traditionalist, it was Danialle’s mother who came up with the idea.

There sat Danialle and her family, a self-proclaimed bunch of “country bumpkins,” waiting and waiting for the cold winds and chill to set in and for the leaves to change from crisp green to a magnificent watercolor spectacle. Finally, her mother announced, “Let’s just do it at the beach!”

Away they went, down to the soft sugar sand and rolling waves, running around in bathing suits and shorts when just one year ago, they’d have been bundled up tight in sweaters and fleece. Danialle went from watching football in a warm home to playing it under a seaside sunshine.

As traditional as Thanksgiving is in her family, Danialle decided that Christmas should be unique between herself, her husband and her children. Which, for Danialle means no Christmas ham and no Santa Claus. Completely unlike Thanksgiving, their Christmas dinner concept is one-of-a-kind.

“Our children plan the menus,” she says. “There’s no turkey or ham, no traditional meal. It’s whatever gluttonous meal they want on that day.”

Her favorite culinary Christmas memory was the year her kids wanted everything to be barbequed. That year, the Riggins family had a spread of coleslaw, mac ‘n’ cheese and potato salad.  “It was like we should have been tailgating,” she chuckled. The consequence of celebrating in such a nonconventional way, was that everyone ate so well and so much, they all paid with aching, stuffed bellies.

Perhaps the most interesting twist of holiday tradition in the Riggins family is the lack thereof. For Danialle, Christmas is a celebration of Christ, leaving no room for Santa. There’s no sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall and no sneak peeking for Old Saint Nick on Christmas Eve – at least not in the Riggins’ household.

When her kids ask why their friends believe in Santa, she explains to them, “Maybe Santa brings their gifts, but mom and dad give you yours.”

Danialle prefers to zero-in on a more meaningful aspect of the holiday. In her home and in her life, traditions are out the window and the focus is on family first.

“People are pushing Christmas too early,” she complains, “and it’s too commercialized.”

Danialle believes Christmas is about life and joy and angels, not gifts and Santa and the madness of the mall. “The icon shouldn’t be Santa,” Danialle says. During the holidays, she is surrounded by great food, family she loves, jokes and laughter.

“There’s no magical man, it’s just us,” Danialle says with pride. “That is what our holiday is made of – our family.”

Cameron and Angelina Miller

by: Raven McMillan

Cameron has it really good when it comes to holidays. With a birthday just three days before Christmas, there’s no guessing why it’s the most wonderful time of the year for him. “I get double the presents and two different celebrations!” Cameron exclaims.

This year, 12-year-old Cameron is going paintballing for his birthday and then down to south Florida to celebrate Christmas. “It’s kinda random,” he says,  “but always fun.”

Last year, Cameron spent Christmas in Fort Lauderdale with the paternal side of his family.  He is able to spend time with his father, his cousins, his aunts and uncles. He enjoys listening to his dad play the piano or, as Cameron describes it, “some other weird instrument.”

Cameron’s 11-year-old sister, Annie, agrees that Christmas is always a good time in South Florida.

Annie remembers a Christmas when she was in south Florida, visiting family, and watched several superhero type movies back to back. She also recalls having Cameron’s cousin come over to spend the night and how all of the kids stayed up late playing with action figures and having fun together.

Annie also reminisces about the earliest Christmas she can remember.

“I was pretty young, maybe 6 or 7,” she recalls, telling the story of getting her very first two-wheeled bike.

Annie continues to set the scene, reminiscing to when her mom woke her up and took her in to the living room where a big, beautiful new bike was just standing there. The bike was exactly like Annie dreamed it would be – pink, white and blue with clean, white tires and a big red bow to cap it off.

Annie’s most recent prized possession is her The Voice Karaoke Machine, that she got last year. “It’s really shiny and high-tech,” she says.

Cameron’s pride and joy is the MacBook laptop from last year’s, er, “Birth-mas.”

But, aside from the toys, both siblings concur that Christmas breakfast is definitely a holiday highlight.

“Usually we go to IHOP,” says Annie, proudly.   She likes their pumpkin pie pancakes and the “yummy syrup that goes with it.”

Her brother agrees, for the most part.  Although not as big of a pumpkin pancake fan, Cameron does agree that Christmas breakfast is better than any other meal. He prefers French toast and pancakes, or an actual slice of pumpkin pie.

Besides food, toys and shiny gadgets, Cameron and Annie explain what it is that they really appreciate about the season.

“Just getting to be together,” Cameron says.

As for Annie, Christmas is about a little something extra. For her, it’s about giving which means seeing hope everywhere. “There’s hope because people give,” she says,  “and that’s what I think Christmas is about.”

Lilli Hart

by: kelli fuqua hart

Lillian Hart has lived in Ocala her entire life – all six years of it. Like everyone else, Lilli remembers what the holidays were like for her, “growing up.”

“When I was a kid,” she begins, as serious as can be, “I remember meeting Santa and sitting on his lap. He was kind of scary then, but not anymore.”

Lilli was born in 2006, when technology had already taken Christmas by storm. A common gift for someone her age would be an iPad, a mechanical doll, a bicycle or even a laptop. She is oblivious to the idea of getting a rag doll or snap gun from Santa. In fact, the idea of getting just one single gift left her with a very confused look on her face.

When asked what she thought kids back in the “old days” may have gotten from Santa, Lilli answered, “A bag of rocks?” Funny how kids believe life was cavemen and silent movies just before their generation came along.

Some of Lilli’s Christmas memories include leaving carrots for the reindeer, singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus and, of course, opening her gifts from Santa, which she wakes her parents up very, very early to do!

This year, Lilli says, will be an “extra special Christmas” because her baby cousin, Gracie, will be old enough to play. Lilli is an only child, so the holidays are always exciting for her because she gets to gather with her very large family to play, eat and celebrate.

Some Christmases, Lilli’s parents opted for a real tree. Some years, her home had an artificial one. Her favorite kind of tree is an artificial one because, according to her, “fake trees are taller and can hold all of my mom’s dangly ornaments.” She went on to say that the only person who can ever reach the top of the tree is her daddy.

In 2011, it became a Christmas tradition for Lilli and her entire family to feed the homeless and less fortunate on Christmas Day. Operation Feed 100 was created and organized by Lilli’s mother, with the help of the community, and introduced to Lilli as a way to teach her that the true spirit of Christmas comes through giving. So now, on Christmas Day, Lilli helps serve food to others as a lesson on giving back.

When asked what Operation Feed 100 does to help others, Lilli replied, “We feed people – people who are 100.” Not quite accurate, but she’s learning the concept of giving.

The night before Christmas, all through Lilli’s house, everyone is dressed in matching pajamas, drinking wassail and out driving around, looking at lights. She loves leaving reindeer food and a note for Santa before going to bed. Her parents love that she still believes in Santa and gets excited for his arrival.

With all of the gifts and lights and cookies, you’d think Christmas was Lilli’s favorite holiday. It’s not. Her proclaimed favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, because she gets to help wash vegetables with her mother, aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother.

On Thanksgiving, Lilli says the girls do the cooking and the guys watch football and “talk about stuff girls don’t understand.” She goes on to say, “My Uncle Grant helps cook some too.”

Having only six years of holidays under her little belt, Lilli may be oblivious to a a time when there were no Christmas lights, no Hallmark gift wrap, no malls or Toys R Us and no MP3s. However, this little girl knows the real reason for the season and is growing up learning the gifts of giving, gathering and God.

She wanted to add that she’d like Santa to bring her a laptop – of course.



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