Barbara Merchant starts pulling out her Christmas decorations in October. The 65-year-old resident of the Harris Homes public housing community in east Birmingham takes her time putting up lights and putting her animated Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus in her front window.
“It makes me feel good because the children enjoy it,” she said, explaining that she decorates “because of love – love for my neighbors and love for my neighborhood – and just for me. I love decorating.”
Today, Christmas came early for Merchant and 68-year-old identical twin sisters Norma Parks and Irma Parks of Southtown Court. Each received a present she didn’t have on her list but welcomed nonetheless.
The trio are the first recipients of the Spirit of the Holiday Season Awards from the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District.
HABD President and CEO Michael Lundy presented the awards to Merchant and the Parks sisters, who for years have decorated their homes and lawns in a showing of neighborhood and community pride.
“We hope these inaugural awards serve to both reward the honorees and encourage our other neighbors to take a little extra effort to display their own holiday spirit and strong spirit of community,” Lundy said. “These individuals have brought smiles to countless residents and people driving by for decades.
“Pride in where you live is not limited by the size of your paycheck, the size of your home or your ZIP code.”
Merchant is a longtime resident and neighborhood leader at Harris Homes. She has decorated her entire apartment building – not just her residence – for more than 20 years.
“I wish I could inspire everybody to do it,” she said.
Norma Parks’ Southtown apartment faces University Boulevard. She has for years prompted motorists to slow down to take in her handiwork, which annually begins the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Some even stop to chat with her.
“I just love to decorate,” she said. “And whatever I do, I do it right.”
She’s done it about 15 years.
“When I was a little child, my mother used to decorate and make sure everyone had something at Christmas.”
She said the neighbors enjoy it.
“They appreciate it,” Norma said. “They say ‘thank you’ and shake my hand.”
Yuletide decorations can be found inside as well, with a tree trimmed in red and gold.
“I do it for the kids,” she said. “They admire the Christmas stuff. I like it too. I love Christmas. I like to see the children smile.”
Norma is 5 minutes older than her sister. “She thinks she’s the boss,” Irma said playfully.
Norma uses Irma’s ladder as she decorates. And, living just a block away, the other twin is not to be outdone.
“I’ve been doing this ever since I’ve been growing up,” Irma Parks said.
Neighborhood children sat on her stoop as she talked. They looked at the lights in her window and ran up and down the lit walkway playing.
“Some parents fix their apartments and others don’t, so at least I do mine,” she said. “It lets them know there’s still a Christmas. They say you never get too old to do something. It doesn’t take long to put it out.”
Irma’s Christmas spirit has been contagious. Her 90-year-old neighbor has been inspired to decorate on her own.
“It’s not all about what you have, it’s about how you treat it,” Irma Parks said. “Make it look nice for the kids.”