Editor’s note: This story appears in the Holiday Issue of Moultrie Scene magazine, available now at The Moultrie Observer’s office.
MOULTRIE — Although snow-flurried Decembers are hard to come by in South Georgia, one local couple continues to work overtime to consistently ensure the Christmas spirit is alive and well in their southeastern corner of Moultrie. For more than a decade, Craig and Hannah Kirkland have been delighting hearts and warming the spirits of family, friends and neighbors with the festive display of lights and Christmas decorations adorning their home for the season.
The tradition began sometime around 2008 or so, just as a little something extra to delight their six grandchildren, Craig explained. “I did a little bit one year, and then the next year I’d add a little bit more. It just kind of grew and grew,” he said.
A number of the Kirklands’ decorations were handmade by Craig himself, to include a large “Merry Christmas” sign, a towering, illuminated candle, and a falling star. “My husband is really talented, so a lot of this stuff he designed himself and put it in the yard,” Hannah said.
Recently, the Kirklands cut down several trees in their front yard, which will prevent them from displaying a lot of the large, suspended decorations Craig previously made. While this year’s display will look different than what most regular visitors are used to, it will still be just as colorful and entertaining, they said.
“We’ve still got all our other decorations that we put up on rebar posts,” Hannah explained. “We go to [the store] Christmas Done Bright in Gatlinburg each year, buying stuff and getting it shipped here, and then we attach it to the rebar and put it up on the roof or in the yard.”
Craig went on to say that they are always on the hunt for more items to add to their display. “Anywhere you think of where you see Christmas decorations – Lowe’s, Home Depot, Walmart – we go and look,” he said.
Years ago, when they initially started the display, people would walk or drive up, but most visitors weren’t aware that they were able to get out of their vehicle and take some time to meander around. Craig and Hannah quickly took the necessary steps to remedy that situation.
“The first year we put stuff out people started coming and looking, but they didn’t know they could get out of the car – we had to let them know that they could get out and walk around,” Hannah said.
“Then later we had signs made that we put out there by the road saying, ‘Get out, walk around and enjoy the lights,’” Craig explained.
In addition to having something their grandkids could look forward to every year, the Kirklands felt the need to keep the tradition going in an effort to provide an inexpensive alternative for families who might not have the financial means to visit popular Christmas attractions across the state.
“We wanted something that didn’t cost money, because some people just cannot afford to go see Santa and to go see the lights in places – it’s not always free,” Hannah said.
Craig went on to say that after a few years, they decided to add one more feature to the display.
“We were walking through Walmart one year, and [Hannah] said, ‘Well, how would you like to do Santa Claus in our front yard?’”
Afterwards, the Kirklands began playing host to jolly old St. Nick, who comes by on a regular basis to visit with children and hear their Christmas wishes. Hannah fills in for Mrs. Claus and ensures every child leaves with a little token of their visit with Santa.
“I wanted to be able to give the kids a little something, so we give out candy canes, and just allow people to park and walk in our yard, look at the lights and spend some quality time with their family,” Hannah said.
For Craig and Hannah, the lights, decorations and even Santa’s visit are just surface level when it comes to the real reason for the season – to celebrate the birth of Christ, as well as to share love and joy to others. The first year Santa visited was quite an experience for the couple, who had a memorable encounter with one young girl and her grandmother.
“I asked her what she wanted for Christmas, and she said, ‘Oh, I’m not getting anything this year because we can’t afford it.’ That broke my heart,” Craig said.
In the meantime, the girl’s grandmother was explaining to Hannah that her granddaughter’s parents were both incarcerated, she was living on Social Security, and how her granddaughter understood that they had each other, they had food and clothing, and that was enough.
“I was not okay – the whole time she was talking I was doing everything I could not to cry, and then I looked over at my husband and I just knew what he was thinking. It was like I could read his mind saying, ‘We’ve got to have something in that house we can give them,’” Hannah said.
It just so happened that the couple had recently visited Cleveland, Georgia, home to BabyLand General and the popular Cabbage Patch doll, where they purchased two dolls for their granddaughters. Hannah knew what she had to do.
“[One of the dolls] was on the top shelf, and I couldn’t reach it, so I ran to the kitchen, got the broom and knocked it off the shelf, tore the tag off of it and stuffed a big bow where the tag had been,” she said. “Then I grabbed a Christmas book and that I had gotten and a small stocking of candy, and I took that out there and I gave it to Santa. Santa said, ‘Oh, my elves have been busy tonight. Look what they’ve just brought me!’”
Both Craig and Hannah said they have never witnessed such a beautiful moment of happiness when Santa presented those gifts to the little girl.
“When that baby tore that gift open and she saw that baby doll – I can’t even describe it, I absolutely can’t even describe it,” Hannah said. “After that, for years she would come back and say, ‘Look, Santa, look! I still have my baby doll!’”
The term “Christmas tradition” has taken on a whole new meaning for those who have made it a yearly habit to visit and see the Kirklands’ light display. “This past year, we had a gentleman that came regularly when he was a kid – he brought his newborn,” Hannah said.
The Kirkland house is a regular place to stop on the way home for one mother and daughter, who frequently come by during the Christmas season. “[The daughter] has autism – they’ll just stand out there for about 10 or 15 minutes, and then she’ll say, ‘Okay, go,’” Hannah said. “She won’t go to sleep unless her mom brings her back here every night to see those lights.”
There are also two little boys – brothers, who have grown especially fond of the Kirklands, and their family makes sure they stop by every year, according to Craig and Hannah.
“The littlest one got so attached to me that he told his mama he couldn’t go to bed unless he comes by, sees our lights, and talks to me,” Hannah said. “The last time we did Santa, he went that Wednesday after Christmas to have surgery. He’s had two or three surgeries since then, but every year he comes faithfully. We’ve made lifelong friends with these kids. I guess the best way to put it is that just they just touch our souls.”
Over the years, as the couple gave of themselves to their community, others wanted to give back to them. Some visitors even wanted to donate money to the family, if only to offset the cost of their electric bill, Hannah explained.
“People would leave money, or they would find out our address and send checks. Some offered to help pay our light bill or to just help pay for some of the decorations, and we told them no, no, no, because we didn’t do it for that reason,” she said.
However, Craig and Hannah realized they could use the donations to help those who were less fortunate.
“The very first year we took that money and put it in a different account – a Christmas account, and then the next year we put that toward helping families and children who weren’t going to get things for Christmas,” Hannah said.
The couple sought out help from organizations such as the Division of Family and Children Services, the Colquitt County School District, and even word of mouth to find families in need of a little extra help. Once families were identified, they worked with the organizations and used the donations received to purchase items, and for several years, everything was going well.
Then, the unthinkable occurred.
“About five years ago something happened, and it kind of broke our spirit,” Hannah explained. The Kirklands discovered that one of the families they helped – a mother with five young children – had returned all of the items that were purchased for them. “Everything that we bought, from bicycles to scooters, to new clothes, jackets – everything that we bought, the mama took it all back,” Hannah explained.
They were alerted to the situation when Craig was reviewing their credit card statements and noticed a significant number of returns on their statement. “We started looking at the amounts and the amount was almost the same as what we had spent [on that family],” he said.
Hannah went on to explain how they always provide receipts to the families they help, in the event any clothing items needed to be exchanged for different sizes. In this case, the mother went to the Moultrie Walmart and returned almost every single item that had been purchased for her children – and demanded that she be given cash in return – not realizing that the Kirklands had used their credit card to make the purchase.
“It was a large amount and [Walmart] put it back on our card. She started demanding that they give her cash – she wanted cash, and they wouldn’t do it. That broke our hearts. It hurt so bad knowing that those babies – there were five of them… I told them to give us a list of everything that they wanted. We got them a Christmas tree, and stockings, and everything, and she took it all back,” Hannah said.
She went on to say the most painful part of the ordeal was knowing the children were aware of everything that was given to them that year, only to see it taken away.
“It really did it hurt me, and it made me mad, but I was hurting for the children, because I got to know them. I watched them decorate their tree, and then we delivered everything to them, but then all that was taken away,” Hannah explained. “That was the hardest part – what hurt the most is that the babies had to go that Christmas and have everything taken away from them.”
Craig and Hannah resolved not to let that one incident stop them from helping other families, however. The following year, Craig reminded his wife of the significance of what they were doing. “You can’t let the devil get you down,” he said.
“We’re good Christian people and we know that the devil is always gonna try to rear his ugly head when goodness and kindness is going on,” Hannah said. “That’s why my husband is a remarkable man, not just because he’s my husband, but because he said, ‘You know we can’t let this stop us. This is God’s work; this is what we’re supposed to be doing. This is our purpose. We’re putting these Christmas decorations up, and you just better get ready to find the next family.’”
The Kirkland home is located at 1312 Third St. S.E. here in Moultrie, and will begin lighting up the night with their Christmas display on or about Dec. 1.