“Because the Best Thing About Christmas Is the Christ Child Being Born”
Lots of people decorate BIG for Christmas. That’s not too unusual. Maybe several Christmas trees, thousands of lights inside and out, garlands of greenery everywhere, collections displayed of Santa, reindeer, angels, nativity figures, and myriad other symbols of the season.
Mildred Brack Orr McCrary says she has been one of those people for nearly all of her 95 years, and for the last 70-plus years has been collecting nativity sets that now number over 300. “I have always loved Christmas,” she says, “and I bought my first nativity when my son Rod was a baby so that I could use the figures to teach him about the Christmas story. That started a love for them that has continued all these years. I still treasure every single one of them!”
She has figures made of every conceivable material—crystal, ceramic, fabric, wood—you name it—and from all over the world. Most all of her friends and relatives are always on the lookout for unusual ones they can bring her. Many of the crystal ones are stored in wood, glass, and mirrored curio cabinets so Mildred can enjoy their beauty and sparkle year-round and not just during the Christmas season. She also has a room in her house dedicated to display of many of her Christmas treasures. However, there are still boxes and boxes of nativities stored in closets that are brought out just for the season.
Mildred was born in 1923 at Waterman’s Front near DeBerry. “Waterman was the name of the man who owned the store there that my daddy managed,” she says, “and the community had his name. I spent a lot of my early childhood in that store! We moved to Carthage when I was about 10, and I have lived here ever since.”
A graduate of the CHS class of 1939, Mildred always knew she wanted to be a teacher. She attended Texas State College for Women for two years, and at that time a wartime provision was created to allow her to be hired to teach after just those two years, with the understanding that she would go to college in the summers to complete her degree. She thought she wanted to teach sixth grade but says she talked herself out of it when she realized she wasn’t much bigger than children that age and felt a little apprehensive about it. She requested an assignment to teach first grade instead, and it was a perfect match; she taught in that position her entire career. After she had been teaching a few years, superintendent Q.M. Martin asked her to start a tuition kindergarten program for the district, and she worked half-day mornings with those students, returning to her first graders for the rest of the day, until the kindergarten program got off the ground. She did finish that promised bachelor’s degree, and after teaching for four years, she also earned her master’s degree from SFA.
Mildred always had Christmas programs at school. For the program just as World War II was ending, she mused to a friend, “I really need a good Santa Claus for my Christmas program this year.” Her friend said, “I think I know the perfect one for you. He is a soldier just coming home from the War. None of the kids will know him, and I think he will be glad to do it.”
It’s not hard to believe that even the story of Mildred meeting her husband Lawrence for the first time would have a Christmas element to it. “He was my Santa that first time, and he was my Santa ever after!” she exclaims.
Mildred joined a sewing club and was always needing a sewing project. She chose nativity figures to make, especially enjoying creating the ones small enough to use as tree ornaments. She also recalls that pretty lacy handkerchiefs were common “teacher Christmas gifts” in her early years of teaching, and she would also use those to make her figures. “I would use the most delicate, fragile, lacy ones for angels and the less delicate ones for the other figures,” she says. “It was a wonderful way for me to remember and enjoy those sweet gifts and the sweet children who gave them to me!”
Her husband Lawrence was a carpenter who worked in Shreveport, and Rod was their only child. The family traveled some, but Mildred says they really preferred staying close to home and just doing occasional short trips, picnics, and other family outings.
Her own mother died when she and her younger sister Marie were very young. Her father remarried, and a brother and a baby sister were added to the family. “I’m the oldest,” says Mildred, “and she’s the youngest, and we are the only two left now. Lawrence’s Aunt Pearl moved in with us early in our marriage, and it was like having a mother again. I know she would also have been like a wonderful grandmother to Rod, too, but she passed away when he was still a baby.”
Mildred retired in 1978; Lawrence was planning to retire at the same time, but he changed his mind and worked for another two years. “I didn’t change my mind, though,” she says. “I just wanted to enjoy being a housewife and mother, and I DID!” Lawrence passed away in 1996.
Rod now lives in Houston. He has a son who is a broker in San Antonio who has provided Mildred with a great granddaughter who is now 13. His daughter is a teacher in League City who has given her two great grandsons, ages 7 and 10. “I wasn’t surprised that my granddaughter became a teacher,” says Mildred, “because I watched her enjoy playing ‘school’ all the time and just as much as I did when I was a child!”
Mildred says that her son does not share her great love for her nativity collection. “I can understand how he sees it as a lot of work,” she says. “It does take a long time to get them out, set them up, and put them back into storage. And we have another house out in the country besides the one in town that we decorate. But to me it was never work; it was FUN, and I have never gotten tired of it. I love all things Christmas, but especially the nativity scenes because the best thing about Christmas is the Christ child being born! It’s the best news we have ever had or ever will have!”