This year, as Debbie Gabel gingerly unraveled crumpled tissue paper and tattered bubble wrap to unpack her hundreds of ornaments, she received an early Christmas gift. At the bottom of a musky, old cardboard box filled with hand-painted vintage Santas lay a single sealed envelope. Inside, Gabel found a lovingly handwritten letter from her mother, Barbara Price-Williams, who passed away in 2015. “The letter had probably been there 18 years,” Debbie says with a teary grin. “My mother had always loved Christmas, and she passed down so many traditions to us.”
Even as young children, Debbie and her four sisters — Donna, Julie, Mechelle and Sandra — would gather scraps of felt, paint, thread and sequins to create one-of-a-kind ornaments to decorate their family home. Many of those aged baubles still proudly hang from one of Gabel’s three Christmas trees. “When you’re putting up the tree and you see something your mother gave you, or your sister’s handwriting, it’s special,” says Debbie.
Debbie and Jim faithfully continue to share treasured family customs — and new traditions — with their many nieces, nephews and even great-nieces. For years, despite the sweltering heat of Mobile summers, almost every Saturday the Gabels had a ritual of loading up their nieces and nephews for a visit to the legendary holiday emporium, Robert Moore and Company Christmas Town. “Afterward, we would have lunch next door at the old diner.” Dessert was always a necessity, and they fondly remember aromas and flavors of the famous chocolate fudge.
In 1988, sister Julie started another “sweet” family tradition that lives on today. She decorated a miniature, 2-foot tree with sugary, glittered, gingerbread-themed ornaments. Each year, her prized collection grew. Soon the other Price-Williams girls joined in the fun, and gingerbread houses and knickknacks became a favorite to create, shop and swap. After Julie’s passing a few years ago, Debbie inherited much of her collection. Now, the Gabels’ robust evergreen is decked to the nines with more than 300 sparkly gingerbread trinkets dangling from every twig and branch, and the theme spills into her kitchen and out onto the front porch. Jim says that particular tree is his favorite part of the annual decorations. “It reminds me of people who have passed so it’s very sentimental. That keeps you focused on what Christmas is all about — family.”