Photo contributed by Courtney Smoker / Dianne and Ron Shrum, in back, pose with their family. At left are daughter Courtney Smoker, her husband, Taj, and their children, Neyland and Meadow. At right are son Zach Shrum, his wife, Ashley, and their daughter, Avy.

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'Christmas card to the neighborhood'

The Shrum family Christmas party is a lot like any other family's yuletide gathering. At every turn, guests will find a table, buffet or cabinet topped with an assortment of festive foods or an assemblage of decor. Grinch Punch over here, a collection of nutcrackers over there.

But there's one notable difference at the Shrum family Christmas party — namely, the live Nativity scene that takes place in the front yard.

Before the inside celebration gets going, several family members, friends and neighbors convene outside to stage an hourlong commemoration of Christ's birth. Despite the scale of the scene — angels, wise men, holy family — the people who organize it say there's not a lot of thought and planning that goes into it.

"It just comes together," says matriarch Dianne Shrum. "It's not anything that's really planned or assigned. It's very laid-back. Everybody shows up that can show up, about 30 minutes before the animals."

Oh, yes, there are animals. They take a little more wrangling, but it's all part of the tradition that Ron and Dianne Shrum and their line of descendants have cultivated over several years in St. Elmo. They call it their "Christmas card to the neighborhood."

This year, they let us peek behind the curtain on how it all comes together.


In the beginning

It all started with the Christmas party and Ron and Dianne Shrum's love of entertaining.

"They love to host," says daughter Courtney Smoker.

She lives next door to her parents with her husband, Taj, and their children Neyland, 9, and Meadow, 7. Ron and Dianne's son Zach Shrum, his wife, Ashley, and their daughter, Avy, 16, live about three blocks south.

A family Christmas party has been an annual tradition since before Ron and Dianne, both 64, were even married — and they've been married 43 years. Both come from large families. Most of their relatives live nearby, Ron's side in the Hixson area and Dianne's people in North Georgia.

All of the extended family are always invited, along with the Shrums' closest neighbors and friends from church, Calvary Chapel Chattanooga. The turnout usually numbers 50-80 people.

To see it

The Shrum and Smoker families’ live Nativity will be from 7-8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, in the 4700 block of Tennessee Avenue in St. Elmo. Dianne Shrum says people can “drive by and see it quick” or find a place to park and walk by. She urges extreme caution because the houses are located in a hard curve.

"We'd like to invite all the neighbors, but we just don't have the room," Dianne says.

Those who don't make the list for the party can still come by for the Nativity. Ron routinely mentions the tradition to new acquaintances.

"He might meet somebody in July at the dentist or getting a haircut and he'll say, 'I have this big Nativity and you need to come,'" says Dianne. "He might forget to tell them when, but word just spreads."


Ron the idealist, Dianne the pragmatist

For Ron Shrum, a retired mail carrier, Christmas is showtime, a chance to transform his 1908 Craftsman-style home into a Christmas showplace.

"My husband decorates like Clark Griswold," says Dianne. "Some men hunt. Some men fish. He decorates for Christmas. He's always decorated, regardless of where we've lived or what is going on."

Ron remembers having a fascination with Christmas from an early age. "It's just something I've always done, even as a young boy at home," he says. "Me and my brother used to decorate our house."

If his and Dianne's St. Elmo house could handle it, Ron would add more decor every year, but he says the breaker box is "maxed out."

Still, he doesn't feel he's reached critical mass with his purchases yet. "My wife would say I've reached critcal mess," he laughs. "But all that's in my basement are Christmas decorations, hand tools and a lawnmower. That's it. Christmas, that's my hobby."

Dianne confides that one of their first arguments after they married was over Christmas lights. Ron insisted on decorating with C9 bulbs, the rotund, 2 3/4-inch bulbs popularized in the 1950s. She wanted the smaller, slimmer twinkle lights. He resisted downsizing to even the 2-inch C7 bulbs. A few years and several technological advances later, she says, "We went through the same thing with LEDs."

The debates don't end with the lights. There's also the matter of the tree — well, trees. Ron has one of the vintage silver trees with a revolving color wheel that he likes to put out, and they decorate a real tree in the mudroom. Those go up without much disagreement. But the big tree in the living room is often a problem, specifically the size of the tree in relation to the size of the house.

"He wants the biggest tree he can find," Dianne says. "I'm always telling him, 'It looks smaller when it's out in the open, then you get it in the house'" Her voice trails off at the recollection of past trees that, in true Griswold fashion, have overtaken the living room.

After the Shrums moved to St. Elmo in 2008, a decorating contest sponsored by the Community Association of Historic St. Elmo was further inspiration for Ron to channel his inner Griswold and share his favorite hobby with the neighbors.

"Oh, Lord, did my husband get in on that," says Dianne.

Ron's efforts inspired Taj.

The dual devotion to decorating meant the Shrums and Smokers often traded wins from year to year during the run of the contest, and while it no longer exists, the men's fervor hasn't faded.

As Courtney explains, "My husband, when people ask, 'Where do you live in St. Elmo?' he'll say, 'You know the curve with all the Christmas lights? That's us.'"

Dianne says she often hears from neighbors who lyrically recall their first encounter with the lights each Christmas.

"You round the curve, and it's like 'Hallelujah!'" she laughs.


Bearing witness

Years ago, when their children were young, Dianne and Ron Shrum attended a church in North Georgia that held a live Nativity each December. They both took part.

"I remember the kids loved it," she says. "It was a great way for teaching them our faith and acquainting them with what Christmas was about to us."

Eventually, as the membership aged, the church stopped staging the Nativity. The Shrums had moved to St. Elmo by this time, but Ron still did some part-time maintenance work for their former church. One day, he discovered the Nativity costumes in storage. He came home and told Dianne his idea.

"We were talking about how beautiful the costumes were," she recalls. "He said, 'I want to have a Nativity and let our grandkids see it. It doesn't have to be at a church; we can do that here.'"

Each year since 2010, the church has allowed Ron to borrow the costumes for his front-yard re-enactment.

Depending on participation, not everyone gets one of the elaborate costumes, handcrafted by members of the congregation.

"The shepherds, they pretty much wear house robes, but as far as Mary and Joseph and the wise men, those are vintage church," says Dianne.


Creatures great and small

On the night of the Nativity, the only detail that's ever certain is that Bagby's Critter Corral will provide the animals. The Apison-based mobile petting zoo has a menagerie of barnyard animals and a calendar full of bookings at Christmas and beyond. The Shrums always lock down their date for the following year before Lamonte and Sandy Bagby load up and leave the family's front yard.

The addition of the animals — a donkey, llama, goats, sheep and a long-haired Scottish Highland cow — came a couple of years into the Nativity scene, after the Shrums encountered the Critter Corral at a fall festival.

Dianne admits she was skeptical. "I told him he was crazy," she remembers, reminding her husband how many electrical cords were strung across the yard that the animals could step on. But Ron insisted, pointing out how "perfect" and "well-behaved" the animals were.

"My thing was, yes, but they do still poop," she recalls.

But Ron's vision won out, as it so often does, and the Nativity shepherded in its first animals the next December.

With the animals scheduled to be on premises, Dianne decided to alert the neighbors through a community email chain.

If the homemade presentation's first year was simply a way to remind the Shrums of the reason for the season, adding the animals made it something of a production.

"That's when we decided it could be our Christmas card to the neighborhood," Dianne says. "It was our way of starting the Christmas season. We would emphasize the Birth."


Wondrous night

Daughter Courtney, a schoolteacher, directs the Nativity. Early arrivals get dibs on characters. There's not a lot of prep work. "I slap a costume on them and send them out into the cold," she says.

Cold they can handle, but last year's display had to be called off due to unrelenting rain and the flu bug.

"We had planned to do it; we had things covered [from the rain], but it was too dangerous for the animals," says Dianne.

In the coldest temperatures, they have portable heaters in the yard and the actors wear winter coats under their costumes. "Sometimes they look kind of puffy" in character, Courtney says.

Her brother, Zach, usually dresses as Santa, handing out treats and listening to wish lists as onlookers crowd the sidewalk.

Ron helps his son get dressed in the red suit and then runs interference for Courtney.

Dianne is always busy with party prep and rarely sees the production. "I'm usually so busy trying to get the food and everything ready for when they all come back in, I barely get to see it," she says. "I'm totally a behind-the-scenes person."

Dianne says onlookers often troop into the yard to pet the animals, talk to the Nativity characters and look at the doll that depicts Baby Jesus.

"It sounds like a circus," she admits," but it's really neat. It's kind of evolved into a tradition not just for us but for a lot of people in the neighborhood."

A friend of Courtney's puts her kids in their pajamas to come see the Nativity, then they go home and watch "The Polar Express." Other people take a break from their own Christmas parties to come by, and churches bring youth groups. Neighbors looking for a way to contribute pass out hot chocolate to the crowd.

"It's not really something that's that big a deal [in the planning]," Dianne says, "but it's one hour that's really precious to us as a family.