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For twenty years, Charles MacNeil played Jolly Old St. Nick for his family at Christmas, dressing up at their holiday party in a bright red suit and flowing beard. He always called his wife of 69 years “Holiday Mary” for the joyful way Mary MacNeil celebrated every holiday, including Christmas. Charles died about five years ago, but in 2013 Mary decided to honor his memory by continuing his Christmas tradition. She dresses up as Mrs. Santa Claus, hands out gifts and is readily available for lots of photos with her six children, 21 grandchildren, 41 great grandchildren, and three great-great grandchildren, whoever can fit on her 91-year-old lap. She plans to continue the tradition as long as she is able.
Mary’s mother had died when Mary was only six months old, so she and her sister were raised by their father, a Polish immigrant. “My father had nothing,” says Mary. “But he made every holiday important. You have to have something to look forward to. My sister and I had big long stockings. We got ribbon candy every year. We had a roast and potatoes and a pie from the bakery. It was special.”
Charles and Mary were brought together by Charles’ mother and sister. According to Mary, they weren’t too fond of Charles’ current girl friend and thought that Mary would be a much better match. Apparently, Charles agreed. So did Mary. “He had nice brown eyes and long eyelashes and dimples,” she says, adding, “That wouldn’t affect me now. He was nice and sweet and had a great sense of humor.”
They married a year later. Charles was twenty; Mary, seventeen.
Charles served in World War II for two years as a carpenter and continued working with that craft all his life, starting out earning a dollar a day and later establishing a business as a homebuilder especially renowned for the stairs he created (He playfully called his business Stairs R Us). Mary’s career centered on her children, eight altogether (Two died in infancy) over a 21-year span.
Holiday Mary was adept at filling their home with warmth and love. From green shamrock pancakes on Saint Patrick’s Day to fireworks on the 4th of July to a living room overflowing on Christmas, every holiday was special.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a lot of fun,” says daughter Colleen Freeman.
Even illnesses were special: patients were brought food on a tray, given backrubs, and provided enough attention so that, according to Colleen, “When anyone was sick it was like a holiday. We didn’t mind getting sick.”
“And she’s the queen of comfort food. Everything is always delicious.”
At age 73, Mary began working at daughter Charlotte Wildowsky’s laundromat and liquor store in Oakdale, Connecticut, continuing until the age of 88, when she needed back surgery. Charles, who had experienced more than one bout of cancer in their lifetime together, died at the age of 90 of a previously-undiagnosed stomach cancer. What Mary misses most about him is his sense of humor and how smart he was. He also wrote poetry, which she greatly admired. (See Charles’ poem, “Christmas Morning”)
These days, she is spry and active at Our Lady of the Lakes Roman Catholic Church, where she has many friends. She also drives herself to the Senior Center twice a week to take stretching classes. Mary used to take the gentle yoga class but doesn’t anymore. She is also well recognized among friends and family for her bread making abilities and each loaf is in high demand. At 91 her hair is beautifully coifed, her make up artfully applied, and nails perfectly manicured. She has a welcoming smile and a hug as she greets people.
In 2013 Colleen attended the 68th Annual Jack Frost Bazaar at Niantic Community Church in Connecticut, where she saw Iva Thomas dressed up as Mrs. Claus, greeting children, and handing out small gifts. Inspired, Colleen suggested to Mary that she might enjoy taking over Charles’ role at the family Christmas party by playing Mrs. Claus. Colleen rounded up the appropriate attire—red dress, bonnet, wire glasses—and Holiday Mary supplied the holiday spirit. And now the tradition continues. With a big family of 72, Mary hands out a favorite recipe on cards with a photo of her, a holiday treat treasured by each family member.
“I thought the outfit was beautiful. I enjoy the children most. It was a little strange at first,” says Mary.
“Some recognized me but not the younger ones.”
“She is an inspiration for us,” says Colleen about her mother. “We figure if she can do it, we can. She is the matriarch of the family and sets an example for us. She always has such a positive attitude about everything. And it is heartwarming to see my mother do this and remember my Dad.”
By Charles "Charlie" Richard MacNeil
They all hung up their stockings,
Deep within the evening's darkness
Comes time to open presents
It matters not that Santa gets
It isn't long at all before
You watch them from your easy chair
Seems it's over in a moment