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Wednesday, 24 December 2008 15:44

Holiday transcends economic classes: Family, religion are unifying themes to the season

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Charles Phillips of Waynesville may be monetarily poor, but he is rich in the Christmas spirit.

Each Christmas Phillips covers his small house on Frazier Street with colorful lights and adorns his yard with Christmas trees, Santa Claus statues and a nativity scene.

About an hour away in Cashiers there is an extravagant home with a full slate of amenities: a library, a billiards room with suede walls and a home theater. The owners of the $6 million home, Bill and Melinda Barber, plan to give gifts of ski trips to Vail while Phillips’ idea of a big Christmas is giving a stuffed animal.

Despite the differences in price tags, the true gift of Christmas is the same for both families.

“Christmas is not where you live or what you live in,” Mrs. Barber said. “It’s in your heart.”

To compare how the rich, poor and middle class spend Christmas, The Smoky Mountain News interviewed a local family from each of the socioeconomic classes and found they had more similarities than differences.

The Rich

Melinda Barber said she didn’t decorate the huge home much for Christmas this year because she and her husband are doing the big decorating for New Year’s Eve when they plan to host a party with 80 to 100 people.

The Barber home in all its grandeur, including awesome mountain views, is perfect for hosting large parties.

Mrs. Barber said party guests can chat by the fireplace, play pool and ping pong, watch movies in the home theater or dance to swing music or ballroom dancing.

The party, which sounds more like the Martha Stewart TV show, will feature honey baked ham, turkey and homemade rolls as well as a table full of desserts, Mrs. Barber said. A coffee punch and spritzer-type punch will also be served to guests coming in from across the country.

During a tour of the home last week, the baroque classic Pachaelbel’s “Canon in D Minor” was playing. The elaborate décor includes a deer antler chandelier in the living room, Christmas China on shelves and a large mantle with a mounted mountain lion perched on top.

Mr. Barber points out railing that took a blacksmith more than a year to make by hand, stone flooring from Jerusalem, and beams in the ceiling from an 1840s German settlement.

Mr. Barber owns Barber’s Custom Homes and built the five-bedroom, eight-bath home, and Mrs. Barber owns an interior design company and designed the inside of the home.

The home is on the market now for $6 million. The Barbers, who met at Florida Bible College, have lived there about two years and plan to build a smaller home when they sell it.

Their three grown children — one in the Air Force, one pursuing education and another an employee of SunTrust bank in Greenville, S.C. — will all be home for Christmas.

The family has a tradition of a Christmas Eve dinner and reading the Christmas story from Luke, Chapter 2. The family attends a Christmas Eve service at church and may watch a Christmas movie on TV.

Mrs. Barber will prepare a big dinner of beef tenderloin, mashed potatoes, cranberry Jell-O salad, and fresh green beans. For dessert there is a “Happy Birthday Jesus” cake with a white butter cream icing.

The family spends Christmas Day doing things together like playing football, cards or dominoes. Spending a lot of time together is important especially since the family’s children are scattered.

Though the Barber home is grand and beautiful, the Barbers are humble people grateful for their blessings. That may be because they know what it’s like to live in a trailer.

Mrs. Barber said they lived in a trailer while managing a mobile home park in Florida for about two years in the 1960s. The Barbers say their oldest son was just 7 months old when they moved in the trailer. Friends they made at the trailer park come to their mansion in Cashiers to visit still and they go to the trailer park to visit, they said.

The Barbers love sharing their beautiful home with others. The Chamber of Commerce, Board of Realtors and families have used the home for functions.

“It’s been so much fun for us to open the doors,” Mrs. Barber said.

Mrs. Barber acknowledged that their home is “absolutely beautiful” but is “not our life and not who we are.”

Money is neither good nor bad, said Mr. Barber.

“The scripture says the love of money is wrong — not money,” Mr. Barber said. “You can use money for very good things or self destructive things. It all depends on the attitude of the heart.”

The recession is even taking its toll on wealthy families like the Barbers, who say they are cutting back on giving gifts this year and focusing on the real meaning of Christmas.

“We’re all struggling in this economy,” Mrs. Barber said. “The big guys are even struggling. People are losing everything they worked all their lives for.”

Because the Barbers have a child in the Air Force, it makes them concerned about the war and terrorism.

Knowing that all her children are safe is the best gift of all this Christmas, Mrs. Barber said.

As for material gifts, she said one of her favorites from last year was a coat.

“My husband wanted me to have it,” she said. “I love it and wear it all the time.”

There will still be about four or five gifts for each of the children under the tree, but Mrs. Barber said this Christmas is about giving things that are needed rather than wanted.

For instance, Mr. Barber said his daughter detailed her brother’s car as a gift “because everyone is hurting so bad.”

However, Mrs. Barber said the children are getting a snow skiing vacation in Vail, Colo., that the family will spend together.

The fortune that has befallen the Barbers in life has not blinded them to what they say is the true meaning of Christmas.

“We’re concentrating this Christmas on gifts that family can give each other like being together and serving one another,” Mr. Barber said. “There will be some gifts, but the emphasis will be on the spiritual and more about giving than getting.”

Christmas is a time to celebrate God’s gift to man, which is salvation through Jesus Christ, Mr. Barber said.

Mrs. Barber noted that a small nativity scene that belonged to her mother sits on her coffee table. Mrs. Barber’s mother, 86, is visiting for Christmas from St. Petersburg, Fla.

Mrs. Barber is resurrecting another memento from her childhood Christmas this year: a Lionel train that runs around the Christmas tree.

Another special thing she and Mr. Barber are doing this holiday is babysitting three boys that belong to the general manager of Mr. Barber’s company. Because they don’t have grandchildren, the Barbers will enjoy being around the little ones playing hide and seek in the huge house, baking Christmas cookies, and taking them to a nursing home so they can learn about being compassionate toward the elderly, like Mr. Barber’s mother who is a nursing home resident.

The Poor

Meanwhile, over on blue-collar Frazier Street in Waynesville, Charles Phillips and his family don’t have nearly as much money as the Barbers. Their home is tiny with a living room the size of one of the eight bathrooms in the Barber home.

But like the Barbers, Charles Phillips, 48, and his mother, Judith Clontz, said money is not what’s important even during this time of economic downturn.

“We’re poor, but we’re blessed by God,” Clontz, 65, said. “We’re all three together every day. Thank God we’re alive.”

Watching Fox News, Clontz noted all of the things going wrong in the world and said it’s important to pray.

“Every day we pray. He prays. I pray. If you don’t pray, how do you live?” Clontz asked. “We better pray for our new President. He’s got a hard road ahead.”

On top of the Christmas tree in the home is an angel that once belonged to Clontz’s mother. There is a pin on the angel that says “Mom.”

“She’s with us day in and day out,” Clontz said.

Also on the tree are snowflake ornaments given to Clontz by a blind boy who visited the Ingles bakery where she works part time.

Clontz recalls Christmas as a child and said her family was poor but said the family always had a tree and the children got a toy.

“Dad was a dairy farmer,” Clontz said. “We weren’t rich.”

Neatly arranged in front of the TV is a set of about 20 stuffed animals that play songs when a button is pushed.

The toys belong to Clontz’s brother, Charlie Elmer Parton, who is 62 years old but has the mind of a 2-year-old because his mother had spinal meningitis at the time of his birth, Clontz said.

“He can’t read or write,” Clontz said of her brother.

Listening to the music coming from the stuffed animals brings Parton much joy, Clontz said.

“We usually try to get him a new one every year,” Clontz said. “He loves the bluegrass music.”

Parton came out to wave during the newspaper’s visit but went to a back room by himself.

Clontz bragged about how Phillips put up all the outdoor lights by himself this year. She couldn’t help because she is sick with breast cancer.

But Clontz did tackle the decorations inside, which are equally flamboyant with lights running through the whole house.

There is a Christmas tree in the kitchen that she proudly calls, “My Charlie Brown Christmas Tree.”

She loves Christmas because it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, and she is proud of her own son for embodying Jesus’ teachings.

“He buys a present for everyone, but he doesn’t ask for anything,” she said. “The Bible tells us it is better to give than to receive.”

For Christmas Clontz said she wants God to bless and heal her.

Phillips said he wants a white Christmas, but he may also want a new model car that he can assemble and add to his collection that is in a glass case in the living room. He likes showing off his ‘57 Chevy.

Phillips loves this time of year and said he strings up the lights because he is infused with the holiday spirit.

Clontz also enjoys the lights. “I just enjoy coming out and looking at them,” she said. “It’s beautiful when they twinkle like this. We love Christmas.”

This Christmas Clontz said the plan is for them to spend the day together and be glad they are alive. A Christmas dinner of ham or barbecue will be served, and one of Clontz’s daughters may visit.

Phillips said he may watch “Walker Texas Ranger” or “COPS” on TV.

Phillips is disabled and cannot work, but he does help put on wrestling events in Cherokee for senior citizens, handicapped children and foster kids, he said.

The Middle Class

Bouncing on her dad’s lap, Abby Grace is excited but probably doesn’t realize Christmas is near.

Her dad holds her upside down and tells her to flip over backward.

It is a scene played out in neighborhoods across the country — a young middle class couple raising their child, living the American Dream, which is getting more difficult to attain these days because of the recession.

But Jared and Jennifer Stull of Sylva say Christmas is recession proof because the holiday is about family.

Christmas is a time to remember the purpose of life, said Mr. Stull.

“So many times we get stuck in the grind of paying bills and maintaining things,” he said. “God sent his son to Earth as a little baby to have a relationship with mankind and bring peace and hope to the world.”

Stull quoted J. Paul Getty, who said one will never get anything out of life unless he helps another person.

This shows the importance of giving, said Mr. Stull, a masseuse.

A millionaire, poor person, or middle class citizen can all be a giver, said Mr. Stull.

“The poor can give time and love,” said Mr. Stull.

He noted a Bible verse that states a widow put two cents in the offering plate and the Pharisees gave hundreds, but God said the widow gave more.

Jesus and his birth are important at Christmas, said Mrs. Stull.

The Stull family tradition at Christmas is to take turns seeing each other’s families.

This year they are going to Mr. Stull’s mother and father’s home near Greenville, S.C.

On Christmas Day, his brothers and sisters will come over and they will have a big breakfast of pancakes, waffles and omelets, and his father will speak about the true meaning of Christmas.

Sometimes at Christmas the Stull family will sponsor a child whose parents are in prison.

On Christmas Eve they will go to a non-denominational church to worship and afterwards go to one of the members’ homes to fellowship by playing ping pong, eating and playing cards.

The Stulls say they don’t make a big deal out of Santa Claus for their child, because it detracts from the true meaning of Christmas.

However, they say they are not anti-Santa Claus and decorate their home with lights and candy cane yard ornaments.

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