Mom’s & Mad Dog’s Light Years Apart Holiday Tours of Richmond

Christmas Memories by Candlelight

“You’re supposed to keep Christmas in your heart all year… for me, the worst part about Christmas being over is taking down the pretty lights. – My daughter, Tovi Laughon Heffron’s response after I asked if blogging about Christmas after Christmas was a good idea.

Part One: Mom’s Holiday Tour of Richmond

Funny, when I think back on my “growing up days” and the family tradition of coming to Richmond, Virginia for Christmas, whether it was from Front Royal, Virginia; Norfolk, Virginia; Orangeburg, South Carolina or Gainesville, Florida, it was the high point of the year for me. It was magical. It was mystical. It was Richmond, Virginia.

It was a candlelight holiday that could warm the coldest of hearts, bringing comfort and joy to everyone who immersed themselves in it.

Our Christmas trips to Richmond were always by car and always with the four of us, Mom, Dad, my sister Nel and me, and always sharing limited space with our suitcases stuffed full, garment bags, presents for all, and delicious goodies … lots of delicious goodies. Where was a rack on top when we needed one?

When we arrived, we always repeated the same rituals and routine. There was a rhythm and rhyme … Nel and I would have it no other way. In fact, no matter how far we had to drive, we talked the entire time about what we wanted to do after we passed the “Welcome to Richmond” sign.  And, with little variation, it was the same things, mapped out the same way, year after year, after year. And, we loved it!

We would always enter the city, just southeast of downtown, take a slight detour to drive a well traveled loop on Church Hill and park in front of St. Johns Church where Patrick Henry delivered his “give me liberty or give me death” speech and where Edgar Allen Poe’s mother was buried.

Church Hill was mom’s cue to take on her “official Richmond tour guide” role and tell us (one more time) all about the importance of Richmond and Virginia and help us focus on the important things we needed to know (translation had to know) in order to be strong American citizens.

After mom’s passionate and inspirational tour kickoff, we drove down the Hill to Tobacco Row where we were reminded about how important tobacco was to Virginia and tobacco manufacturing was to Richmond and what they produced was to the WORLD! It seemed like all the brands in the land were made right here! I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to light up a cigarette made in Virginia and tell all of my friends! Then, I would acknowledge their positive reaction with a  perfectly symmetrical shaped smoke ring!

The next stop was the historic state capitol where we were quizzed on who designed it (hint … our third President who my oldest grandson and I share our name with).

We were reminded that the first, largest and most prosperous of the British colonies in America was (no surprise … starts with a V).

Furthermore, Virginia was home to four of the first five presidents of the United States — eight in all, more than any other state. Who could deny that this was indeed the true center of the universe and that anything and everything  of any importance came from here … the birthplace of the United States of America. What else could you do at this moment other than salute and sing a quick round of God Bless America? We sang it in four part harmony.

How could you not put two and two together and realize, that because we were a family from Virginia (that had roots dating back to the original colonists), we were important, too?

Mom stated it was for certain. Dad would smile and give a positive nod.

To Nel and me, all of this, though important and our ticket to becoming strong American citizens, was merely a grand refresher slowing down our progress  to get to where we really wanted to go … Miller and Rhodes and Thalhimers … the two amazing downtown department stores with even more amazing holiday window displays. Those displays totally captured our attention and imagination. We pressed our noses against every window no matter how cold …  even when it was snowing). Themes would change each year, but one I remember was Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Life-sized mannequins dressed to the nines would electronically come to life and perform just for us, accompanied by music, narration, and twinkling lights. Each window would portray a different scene and we could stay as long as we wanted and we wanted to stay forever!

Vintage Holiday Window Display

Every year, Mom would tell us that everything we were witnessing behind those grand display windows came from New York City! That declaration made the experience even more spectacular, more magical, and, yes … more important. This being said, we knew that if you were from New York, you were still a Yankee! But, even so, we had to give those Yankees credit for making incredible department store Christmas window displays.

We would ultimately be gently nudged back to the car (even though Nel and I never wanted to leave) to wind our way from downtown toward the West End. We knew we were heading for Monument Avenue, where Nel and I would be tested on who the statues memorializing Virginian Confederate participants of the Civil War were. We were ready! We passed with flying colors every time. How could we not … we were whispered the answers when we were in the womb.

The Christmas lights in Richmond were different from anywhere else in the world we were told, and we took that as FACT. To our knowledge, there were no multicolor lights in the entire city (except Miller & Rhodes and Thalhimers, and they came from New York City). All the other towns and cities we lived in had lots of multicolor lights, but we never had them in any of our homes, no way! We were always true to our birthplace, Richmond … and folks from Richmond were somehow above that … the city and its homes were all adorned with candles that illuminated every window. These candles were a tradition that dated back to colonial times. Yes, we knew that our new improved candles were plugged in, but this improvement was accepted. Less upkeep and fewer house fires!

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright. Nothing in this sacred carol suggested multicolor lights… nothing! Case rest.

Whether you were decorating inside or outside your home in Richmond, only real, fresh cut evergreens, holly, magnolia, cedar and pine adorned with cones, fruit, and berries were acceptable. Fake replicas, plastic or other materials were taboo … forbidden in the old Capital City of the South (which would have been the Capital City of the United States of America had we pulled off winning the War Between the States as planned … damn Yankees).

We knew our Holiday Tour of Richmond was coming to an end when we began to drive west down Grove Avenue parallel to the trolley tracks (first trolleys in the United States of America I’ll have you know).  And, where they dead-ended, we would only pause for a minute or two for Nel and I to shout, that’s Pa Pa’s office! The small plaque next the entrance door on the front porch simply read, Dr. B. H. Martin, MD.

I would always shout out, “Are we going to go and get Pa Pa give us a physical?”.

“Not me … Pa Pa is too rough,” Nel said tearing up. “Mom, please, no, please!”

“Scaredy cat, scaredy cat, scaredy cat! Meow!” I shot back not more than a few blocks from Pa Pa’s (a name that was more special and important than a mere grandfather)!

No one said anything else, we all knew we would be stopping by Pa Pa’s office … physical exam was part of every trip to Richmond. A few blocks later, we were turning right on Three Chopt Road … and there it was … the end point of our destination.

To Nel and me, Pa Pa’s home looked like Downton Abby.  And, he was indeed the king of his castle … the Wizard of Oz … and the only real Pa Pa in the universe (if there were others, they had to be pretenders). His peers, subjects and patients called him Dr. Martin (including my dad).

Only the grandkids could call mom’s dad Pa Pa. Nel and I were the oldest, and therefore the most important of the chosen few. He was our Pa Pa first. We may have named him … on second thought, I take that back … since I was the first born of the chosen few … I named him. That’s right … I named the King, Pa Pa. Yep, all by myself. Had to be me … he was already Pa Pa when Nel came along … case closed!

As we walked toward the door of Pa Pa’s castle lugging luggage, presents and goodies, we saw the white candle lights in all the windows  and on the big front door hung a giant reef of real, fresh cut evergreens, holly and magnolia. And garlands of cedar and pine adorned with cones, fruit, and berries hung above every window facing the street. It was beautiful. It was Richmond. It was Pa Pa’s. This was his kingdom and Nel and I were the chosen ones, so it was our kingdom and castle, too.

The door would open to our excited knocks and there he was, standing at attention, and tall enough to touch the sky. His white hair could easily have been mistaken for a cloud … our very own Pa Pa.

I repeat: It was a candlelight holiday that could warm the coldest of hearts, bringing comfort and joy to everyone who immersed themselves in it.

It was Mom’s Holiday Tour, and we never went off the beaten path. There was a wonder filled rhythm and rhyme to it and it and

Part Two: Mad Dog’s Holiday Tour of Richmond

All of this sets the stage for an event that occurred decades later and was conjured up by a handlebar mustache enhanced guy I have crossed paths a couple of times named Barry Gottlieb …  Barry “Mad Dog” Gottlieb.

Mad Dog and Frank Hudak

“Mad Dog” concocted a scheme that was light years away from traditional candles, fresh cut evergreens, holly and magnolia. Garlands of cedar and pine adorned with cones, fruit, and berries weren’t the only way to celebrate the season. Barry was out to stir things up, more than just a little bit. He wanted to broaden and brighten Richmonders’ horizons.

Bottom line … Barry wanted to shake it up and party down!

He said, “There’s a big part of Richmond that’s always been conservative. And they liked their pretty little white lights and their plaid bows. I think these people were a little offended by it. But of course they all got in their cars and went to check out these houses.”

Barry named his choice collection of homes, whose inhabitants  took his challenge as an opportunity to plug in and strut their stuff, the Tacky Xmas Decoration Contest and Grand Highly Illuminated House Tour. With the flick of a switch, fake was in. Real was passé. Tacky was the new normal.

2300 Wistar - Frank Hudak

Started in 1986, this blur of multicolored lights and illuminated Santas quickly grew into a monster.  Dr. Frankenstein has nothing on us. And, although the name has been shortened to the Tacky Lights Tour, the lines cars and tour buses filled with fun loving humans waiting there turn to marvel just get longer and longer every year.

It’s freewheeling, free, open to the public and open to the wildest imaginations of those who accept the challenge of doing whatever it takes to be noticed and admired.

Looking back on it, Barry could have been just saying we needed to just lighten up a bit,  be more inclusive and accepting of other ways to celebrate the holidays … all lights, decorations and traditions could and should live together!

Then again, he was Barry “Mad Dog” Gottlieb … maybe he just want to stir the pot and party!

Tacky Lights Tour

To me, it’s Miller & Rhodes and Thalhimers Christmas display windows on steroids!

One of this year’s featured homes had 90,000 lights! Virginia Power loves them! Another had 792 homemade decorations … count them and you’ll know it’s true. Still another used an 80 foot forklift to hang their lights in giant trees …. all the way to the top.

I can’t wait until drones, pimped up in tacky lights, start darting around high above the homes on tour and then swoop down to our cars to serve up complimentary hot chocolate in twinkling cups. Now, that’s tacky deliciousness at its best (that is if the hot chocolate in twinkling cups is topped with a gooey glob of glow in-the-dark marshmallows).

Tacky House Tour Monument Avenue

The mansions of historic Monument Avenue are not tacky. Not in the least. Here is picture proof of the Tacky Lights Tour’s acceptance and success. It’s a small display, but a stand out never-the-less! It is what I call, “The New Improved Highly Illuminated Monument on Monument Avenue!” General Lee and Traveler would have to surrender again to this new, improved, outrageously tacky way to travel. Sorry, but it makes the other monuments pale in comparison.

“The New Improved Highly Illuminated Monument on Monument Avenue!”, chosen by the public as one of this year’s Tacky Lights Tour Top Five would have been considered heresy … a sacrilege … a crime punishable by public hanging when Nel and I were kids in the candlelit Kingdom of Richmond … real, fresh cut decorations and white candles everywhere.

Part Three: Daddy Daddy (Kind of like Pa Pa, but me) & Melissa’s Put It All In A Blender Holiday RVA Tour

At Christmas, my two daughters, son-in-laws, and six grand kids follow the old family tradition of visiting us for our version of the Richmond Tour. Parts of it are still the same … the history,  sharing of cherished traditions, importance of family and good times! They pile into cars just like we did. They drive from Wilmington, NC, a right good drive, just like we did. They come bearing gifts, luggage and goodies just like we did.

They love mom, just like we did . We all celebrated her birthday … she’s a Christmas baby! This year was her 95th. Her home was built in 1796. She is not the tour guide she once was, but she still brightens up at the mention of Richmond, and can still sing a proud rendition of God Bless America. And, yes, she had candles in every window.

Our home is right next door to mom’s. We have white candles in every window, too. But we also have plenty of twinkling multicolored lights in just about every room inside! We’ve put the past, present and hopefully the future in a blender!

You can blow out those candles of bygone times all you want (and I am right there with you), but you can’t take away the glow generated in me by those Christmas memories accented by pure candlepower.

Check out http://www.richmond.com/holiday/tacky-lights/

After thought: I wonder if Barry, “Mad Dog” Gottlieb was a Yankee?

About Tom Laughon

Tom Laughon (Pronounced Lawn) is President of Catch Your Limit, an organization whose sole purpose is to guide and grow leaders. His journey from lead singer in a rock-n-roll band, to a successful career in marketing & advertising to consultant, strategist, keynote speaker, facilitator, professor and writer is a fascinating one. Headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, Tom and his team guide organizations, from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies to national associations, to "catch their limit" in areas such as leadership development, creativity, innovation, teaming and transformational change. His commitment to "practice what he preaches" has made Catch Your Limit a petri dish for round-the-clock discovery and learning. The firm's brand reflects Tom's personal brand: Fun, Inspirational, Strategic & Hot!

2 responses »

  1. Tom I love the tour. Never took it at Christmas. But took it many times in my visits with your parents and Nel. I always remember when we saw the “you are now in Virginia” sign your Dad would say to your mother ” Helen, I have brought you home”. Thanks for sharing this special time in your life. I love Christmas. I think Helen helped me with my decorating. Candles in the windows, fresh greenery. Always think of your family so much at Christmas. Hope all is well.

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  2. Well, well., well, Tom! Nice to see I made the flipside of your holiday lights fun. Yes, I was born and raised a Yankee but during 25 years in Richmond was a bit of a regional mutt. Nice to hear from you again…and thanks for the fun mention! http://tackyxmas.com

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