Christmas Village, benefiting the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center, is one of the oldest philanthropic events in Nashville. For many, it has been a family tradition for generations.
A story of love, and loss, and shoppingNovember 6, 2023
The pin that writer Danny Bonvissuto made to wear to Christmas Village in memory of her mother-in-law.
Shopping was my mother-in-law Lucy’s love language. She wasn’t a hugger, and never said she loved me, but she invited me to join her at Christmas Village, and that’s all I needed to know.
One of the oldest philanthropic events in Nashville, Christmas Village was Lucy’s favorite holiday tradition, which is no small thing for a woman who annually turned her entire house into a winter wonderland, including three Christmas trees — the largest of which was dedicated solely to her collection of Santa ornaments.
Every year she and her friends would meet up at an office in Berry Hill, pile into one car and head to the Fairgrounds. The first time I went, 18 years ago, Lucy handed me a $100 dollar bill as we walked in, and I made short work of spending it. I’d been married less than a month and couldn’t remember how to spell my new last name — one S and two T’s? two S’s and one T? — but I certainly hadn’t forgotten how to shop.
For the past two years, I’ve attended Christmas Village by myself, but I’m not really alone: I feel closest to Lucy in those buildings. She’s in my head, nagging me to stop overthinking purchases and just buy them already.
We browsed a few booths, then she’d bump into a friend and chat. More browsing, more chatting. She knew these ladies from Bunco or bowling or the parent-teacher organization back when their kids were little — big groups of women dressed in matching shirts or Santa hats, shopping until they couldn’t feel their feet. After hours of this, I realized that, for many, Christmas Village isn’t just an excuse to shop; it’s a reunion.
“Christmas Village has been a longstanding tradition in Nashville for more than 60 years; not only a tradition of giving to our philanthropies — The Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center and Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg — but also a family tradition for many of our shoppers,” said 2023 Christmas Village co-chair Rachel Murdock, who was diagnosed with profound hearing loss at 13 months old and received her first hearing aids and cochlear implants through The Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center. “Each year generations of families and friends come dressed in their best holiday wares to shop at the Village, making it a fun family event to kickstart their holiday. It is truly a beautiful thing to see how many people have made Christmas Village such an important tradition in their families and to hear how much it has meant to them over the years.”
When the next Christmas Village came around, I’d just moved to Atlanta. The following year I lived in New York, then New Jersey and Long Beach, California. I made a special trip back for a few over the years. When I couldn’t, Lucy knew I hated to miss it, so she’d text me photos: “Do you need this handmade snowman hat?” “Wouldn’t this dry dip mix be nice for Christmas day snacks?” “How about this Tennessee-shaped ornament to remind you of home?”
When I moved back to Nashville in 2020, the pandemic shut down Christmas Village for the first time since it began in 1961. We’d have to wait one more year.
In early 2021, completely out the blue, Lucy was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and given a year to live. She and my father-in-law, Lou, invited my husband, Dom, and I over to talk through her care plan and how she wanted to spend the time she had left. She said she hoped to live long enough to take one last summer vacation as a family. I said I hoped she’d live to see Christmas, but really meant I wanted one last Christmas Village together.
We didn’t get it. Chemotherapy slowed the cancer growth in the beginning, but it sped up suddenly during the summer. Lucy died in August 2021, despite all the efforts and incalculable kindnesses of her care team at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She spent many of her last weeks on campus at Vanderbilt University Hospital, not far from The Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center — the reason Christmas Village was created.
“The Pi Beta Phi alumnae organization via their Christmas Village fundraising has served as an unwavering source of support to the Pi Beta Phi Rehabilitation Institute in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences for decades,” said Anne Marie Tharpe, PhD, Vickie and Thomas Floor Professor and chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences. “The Institute serves adults and children who have been diagnosed with central nervous system disorders, including brain injury, stroke and neurodegenerative conditions. This sustainable source of financial support allows us to provide the services needed to restore communication, mobility and life skills to our patients. Such care aids our patients in transitioning back to school, work and fulfilling lives with their families and loved ones.”
For the past two years, I’ve attended Christmas Village by myself, but I’m not really alone: I feel closest to Lucy in those buildings. She’s in my head, nagging me to stop overthinking purchases and just buy them already. She’s in every dip mix sample I eat and every hug I give her friends as I bump into them along the way. I cry with a mix of grief and gratitude the second I walk in the door, and again as I leave. It’s become my new tradition.