By Ida Brown / firstname.lastname@example.org
The Meridian Star
Sue Thompson shares fond memories of the annual Trees of Christmas tour with her sister, Janie Smylie – not as youth on a field trip with their classmates, but as organizers of what has become a local holiday tradition.
The two sisters, whose father, William Smylie, once served as Meridian's mayor, have assisted with the annual tour since its humble beginnings, which started with the purchase of an antebellum mansion in 1968 by the Meridian Restorations Foundation.
"The house was in horrible shape," Thompson said of the home, now affectionately known as Merrehope.
Nonetheless, the Foundation was able to put together a tour that today has garnered both statewide and national attention.
Unlike more recent tours – which features more than 20 trees at Merrehope and the later acquired Victorian F.W. Williams Home – the first Trees of Christmas featured very few trees.
"They were all downstairs in Merrehope, and the funny part is, we were trying to hide the worst parts of the house so that people could see trees and the house, but not the broken down parts of it," Thompson said.
The sisters, who, along with their mother, the late Margaret Smylie, were members of Time and Tide, one of nine federated clubs under The Meridian Restoration Foundation. Each club was assigned to decorate a tree and Thompson and Smylie did the Dutch Tree, which was located in the house's library.
"There was a window on the front of the house that was broken. The chairman of our club at the time was Mary Williams, who taught at Meridian High School for many years. She had the school to build us a screen and the art students painted a Dutch scene on it and we put that in front of the window so you couldn't see that it was broken," Thompson said.
The Trees of Christmas Tour continued for several years before Merrehope officially opened as a local tour site in 1972.
"We did the best we could," Thompson said. "We needed the money, we needed the fundraiser – which is what Trees of Christmas has always been – to make Merrehope into what we had envisioned it to be."
During the early years of the tour, all trees featured were live, except The Merrehope Tree. Because of this, the tour only lasted one week. Each tree was sponsored by a local business and at the end of the tour, the tree was donated to the sponsor.
"They could take the tree to their businesses to decorate," she said. "Back then, live trees weren't sold early in the holiday season. Billy Stubbs always ordered the trees for us to have before the first part of December for Trees of Christmas."
The Merrehope Tree, which was artificial, would remain up at the home throughout the holiday season. The two sisters have decorated the tree from the very beginning of the tour. Ornaments for the tree were made from fabric and costume jewelry donated by the founding club members of the Meridian Restoration Foundation.
"We gave our formal dressings and party dresses and the fabric was used to cover the ornaments, and then the jewelry was used to decorate," Thompson said. "That tree depicts the history of Merrehope and the ladies who started the whole thing."
The tree's skirt also has a interesting story. Made by Smylie, it was created from old drapery sheers.
"Hulett's Furniture Company made some beautiful drapes for Merrehope when we first opened; the sheers had rotted and had to be replaced several years ago. Janie took the sheers home, cleaned them as best she could – they were pretty fragile – and very, very carefully she cut out the lace motifs and stitched them onto fabric."
The Trees of Christmas Tour continues to secure funds for the restoration and upkeep of both homes. In addition to volunteers from the Meridian Restorations Foundation, schools, social organizations, civic organizations and garden clubs work for months preparing creative ideas, ornaments and decorations for the event. The theme for this year's tour is "Broadway Lights" and each display will depict a salute to a Broadway play.