The spirit of the season

By BETH BUNCH,

Christmas came early for the staff of the Forrest County Chancery Clerk’s office who won the coveted Spirit of Christmas award on Monday. In its second year, the award recognizes the best holiday display among employees of the chancery court building.

The clerk’s office deals with a variety of record keeping for the county such as deeds of trusts, mortgages, mineral leases, plats of land surveys, as well as other not-so-glamorous, but important information. But this holiday season the offices were made inviting for anyone who stopped by.

The office, located right inside the main entrance to the building, was better known this holiday season as Mrs. Claus’s Bake Shoppe. It was outfitted from head to toe in cupcakes, candies, doughnuts and other goodies. An old-fashioned stove, a gingerbread village and a worktable where cookie baking was soon to ensue, completed the panorama. And on Monday, when county employees celebrated a Christmas meal together, Chancery Clerk employees were dressed in red and green elf outfits.

Diane Zachary, a deputy clerk in the winning office, said the employees started brainstorming until she found a picture of a bake shoppe. “We started getting ideas,” she said. “One person would come up with an idea and another person would come up with an idea, and we just put them all together.”

Zachary admits they did get started late. “Everybody else was already decorated and telling us, ‘Yall are way far behind.’ But we were still getting it together. Technically we got it together in our minds before the building.”

Zachary said everybody had wonderful and lovely ideas. “It taught us to work together, we found out we had creativity and learned things about each other we didn’t know and we’ve been together for years,” she said. “There was so much joy and merriment it brought us all together – just a big group effort. And we kept coming up with ideas – giant cupcake, lollipops. ‘Let’s do a train and if we’re going to do a train, let’s do a gingerbread house.’ The project just kept growing, but they also had to keep the space workable.

The chancery clerk’s office didn’t compete last year, “but the challenge was thrown out by Judge Gambrell, who we dearly love,” said Zachary. “I think she has been responsible for bringing so much joy, merriment, showing us what the Christmas season is about. Because everyone who came in after the fact, would light up. It brought joy to us and for people who came into the office and that’s what everything is really all about.”

Doris Middleton, another deputy clerk in the office, echoed Zachary’s summation that it was so much fun. When Judge Gambrell challenged us, we said, ‘Bring it on. And we were ready for it. It’s been so much fun, because from the time they open that back door and come in, they have a different. We are ready for next year.”

The Spirit of Christmas winners received a small trophy and catered meal for 10 from Olive Garden. County District Attorney Patricia Burchell certified the ballots.

In the office of Jimmy Wayne Howell, the county’s Information Technology director, the stockings were hung by the chimney with care as a small dog curled up on the hearth and Rudolph played on the nearby television set. Payroll was turned into the North Pole Payroll, which was overseen by old St. Nick, whose appearance mirrored that of Chancery Clerk Jimmy Havard.

“I walked by, took a look at Santa and said, “Oh my goodness!’” said Gambrell.

Colorful ornaments hung from the ceiling, a money tree stood next to a roaring fire and large filing drawers were wrapped as Christmas packages.

In an adjacent area, Bob Cratchit and the Bah Humbug of Scrooge were provided, compliments of county planner Corey Proctor.

On the second floor, visitors could find a Wintry Woodland Retreat, complete with an antique Victrola, magnolia boughs, an old stove, lanterns and birds roosting in a tree. Down the hall, Judge Deborah J. Gambrell’s office is decorated with a variety of nutcrackers from her vast collection.

The decorating contest was the brainchild of Gambrell, who wanted to lighten the atmosphere of a building where doing business can sometimes be tough, especially when it comes to domestic matters including adoptions, custody disputes and divorces; guardianships; sanity hearings; wills; and challenges to constitutionality of state laws.

It was also a way for her to showcase her Nutcracker Collection, which is 21 years in the making. Theme nutcrackers – zoo animals and sports figures were positioned between traditional nutcrackers, which stood vigil over the office.

A console table holds Gambrell’s oldest nutcracker that her sister gave her about 20 years ago and got the collection started.

“Having had a ballerina daughter and being at the Nutcracker ballet every year since she was 5, it was a good choice,” said Gambrell. The nutcracker’s belly opens up to display a scene from the ballet, complete with a dancing ballerina, Mouse King and other characters.

 “Our work in the court system affects so many,” said Gambrell. “In this season of anticipation when children are separated from family or there is divorce, the court staff wanted to try and lighten things in an effort to bring internal joy and make litigants happier.”

“It was Judge Gambrell’s idea, but the staff worked together,” said Rachelle Fortenberry Steinhauer, staff attorney and court administrator in Judge Johnny Williams’ office.

While there were only six offices in the running for this year’s trophy and bragging rights for the coming year, all of those who decorated said they hope other parts of the building will get involved next year. A lot of challenges have been issued from one office to another and there’s even talk that the friendly competition may make its way across the street to other offices.

Last year’s winner, attorney XXXX Rogers, made this year’s presentation. “Winning the competition was an honor, but bottom line, this has been so much fun,” she said. “What started as a friendly, impromptu Christmas decorating contest between a few coworkers quickly took on a life of its own.”