WHITE LAKE — Out on a somewhat lonely portion of U.S. 701 North, well past the heart of White Lake and just short of Garland, there stands a holly tree that has become an icon for the area this time of year.
That tree belongs to Melva Johnson, and for 53 years — all except one — she has either decorated the tree with the help of her husband and son-in-law or had it decorated for Christmas.
“I think it’s probably the longest decorated Christmas tree in Bladen County,” said Johnson, who, at 98 years young, doesn’t get outside much to see the tree anymore. Instead, she takes a moment now and then to peer through a window at the lights.
After spending their earliest newlywed years living in the circa 1880 Colly District No. 41 one-room schoolhouse on U.S. 701 North, moving into the building in October 1934, Melva and Tommie Johnson built and moved into their new home in 1962. The one-room schoolhouse is now located at Harmony Hall Plantation in White Oak.
In the front of their new home, just to the right of the front porch that features tall white pillars, stood a holly tree that their son-in-law, Ronald Smith, thought would be perfect to decorate for Christmas.
“It was a right good size back then, but it’s grown some since,” Melva said.
Along with a string of colorful lights, the Johnsons soon added a manger scene that lights up in front of the tree.
“That’s the very same manger I bought way back when,” Melva said, “except for the Baby Jesus. I didn’t like the one it came with so I bought another one.”
It wasn’t long before Smith decided to upgrade the Christmas decorations by putting music with the lights.
“He put a speaker under the tree that was connected to a recorder playing Christmas music inside the house,” Melva said. “I sure enjoyed listening to that music and seeing the bright lights.”
Tommie, who usually helped with the decorating, passed away in 2001. So Melva and Smith decorated the tree together up until about three years ago, when her health wouldn’t allow her to continue. The holly tree, now about 30 feet tall, still got decorated by Smith — until this year. He passed away in November.
“I sure do miss him,” Melva said.
Now, Melva hires someone to come right after Thanksgiving to decorate the tree and set up the manger. And on Christmas Day, a blue ribbon is placed on the manger to represent the birth of Jesus. It all gets taken down after Old Christmas on Jan. 6.
The only time the decorations stayed in their boxes was a number of years ago, when Melva and Tommie spent the Christmas holidays in Wilmington visiting family.
“It seemed strange not having the tree lit,” Melva said. “And we had several people say something about it, thinking something was wrong. We were just out of town.”
Melva, who spent several years writing a helpful hints and recipe column in the Bladen Journal back in the 1970s, still welcomes her family to the homestead for a Christmas celebration each December. That family includes four children — Malcolm Johnson of Castle Hayne; Gayle Braley of Apex; and Faye Smith of Fayetteville (a son, Paul Johnson, passed away in California) — along with four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.