On the last Sunday before Christmas day, Forest Park neighbors converge on Triangle Park where Clairmont and Essex meet. At the top of the hill near the tables and playground, families mill about visiting as soft winter shadows lengthen. The younger kids scatter to the swings and slides with their friends. Then a few brave souls start the first song, singing loudly, hoping for others to add their voices quickly. The words to classic Christmas favorites are printed in advance and passed around to encourage booming, confident singing. Neighbors, comfortable with their friends and in the park they built, sing in good spirit just as they have for three decades.
Ask Mia Cather when the neighbors began caroling in the park. She remembers well that it was December 15, 1980. She didn’t go that first year but her husband Bill did, taking their two young boys to the park. So when Mia went into early labor on the winter afternoon before cell phones, she had to call her father-in-law to take her to the hospital. Anna was delivered a little later that night and now Anna Cather McClendon brings her own children each year. “For me, it marks the beginning of Christmas, ” says Katherine Carlisle Brogan who has also grown up caroling in the park. “Mother would bundle us all up, ” she remembers. “Santa came on a fire truck and he would throw out candy canes. Seeing the fire truck arrive was the highlight. That and the donut holes.” Hot cider, donut holes, and that very same Santa have endured.
On Christmas Eve, Santa may enter and exit quietly, but not when he comes to Triangle Park. With siren screaming, the city’s finest from Fire Station 1022 deliver Santa in their blazing red truck. And no one has a better time than Santa, aka Win Scheppe, who’s been there almost from the start. Not one to sit still with children waiting in line to see him, Win works the crowd, engaging each child with holiday chatter and posing for pictures. “Sometimes I have fun with them, looking up into the sky telling them Rudolph is flying over waiting for me to get finished.” Scheppe says and exclaims over the “wonderful, wonderful joy” of seeing the Forest Park children grow up. “I had a mother whisper to me recently at a local store, ‘You used to entertain me when I was 4 and 5.’ It happens a lot.”
Patsy Straka was new to Birmingham and Forest Park when she enlisted the help of her Conroy Road neighbor, Marie Carlisle, to introduce a sentimental gathering from her own childhood. “Where I grew up in Minneapolis, Kenwood was a neighborhood like this with three streets coming together. We had members of the Salvation Army Band lead carols and it was so nice. Young people would come back after they were in college and neighbors brought their grandchildren.” In her hope to create something like that for her daughters, Sarah and Amanda, she was prescient about the generations who would come for years. “The caroling has a family feeling, ” says Mia Cather. “All of our children grew up together. They could run to each other’s houses without being transported. Now they bring their own children.”
This year's caroling will be on Sunday, December 18, at 4 p.m.
Anyone who would like to participate is welcome.
Produced and written by Katherine Pearson