Like any mother-turned-grandmother, Gloria Gaither has years of precious memories that come flooding back each holiday season. From the childhood traditions she shared with her parents, to the life she’s forged with husband Bill, and their three children, Gaither has always celebrated the joy of Christmas with unbridled enthusiasm.
In their new book, A Homecoming Christmas: Sensing the Wonders of the Season, Gloria and Bill have enlisted their friends in the Southern Gospel music community to share favorite recipes, memories and photos in the 176- page hardcover holiday celebration. The Gaither’s book takes a different approach in that Gloria has divided the book into sections according to the five senses.
“I don’t think there’s anything that’s as profound as the incarnation,” she says. “To wrap your mind around the whole truth of that is almost more than we can do, no matter how many times you study it and try to understand it. Down through centuries people have tried to explain that and the wonder of it to another generation.”
In looking for a fresh way to celebrate that wonder, Gloria decided to focus on Christmas as we experience it through the five senses—sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. For 20 years, she and Bill have led other Southern Gospel performers in recording the best-selling series of “Homecoming” CDs/DVDs. For the new book, she recruited her “Homecoming” pals to share their holiday memories and traditions. “We decided to actually divide the book into the five senses,” she says, “and to show this with carols, quotes, pictures, art and different things with the Homecoming people actually telling their own stories ‘If I could tell you Christmas through my taste, here’s what it would taste like. If I could tell you Christmas through my eyes, here’s what it will look like,’ and so the stories that we got from them are just wonderful, very personal and unique to their families and their histories.”
Mark Lowry, Jason Crabb, Russ & Tori Taff, The Isaacs, Guy Penrod, Janet Paschal, Jeff & Sheri Easter, David & Lori Phelps, Candy Christmas, The Hoppers and The Oak Ridge Boys’ Joe Bonsall are among the celebrities who have contributed to the book along with noted author Calvin Miller.
Those who have followed Gloria’s career won’t find it surprising that the talented songwriter, author, speaker, singer and editor would find such a unique way to frame the Christmas experiences shared by her “Homecoming” friends. She’s long been a visionary with a unique ministry.
A pastor’s daughter who grew up in Michigan, Gloria attended Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana. After graduation she took a job teaching at a local high school and met a young English teacher named Bill. The couple married in 1962 and their mutual love of language prompted them to explore songwriting. They formed The Bill Gaither Trio with Bill’s brother, Danny, and soon became one of gospel music’s most popular groups. Over the years, she and Bill have written such beloved hymns as “He Touched Me,” “There’s Something About That Name” and “Because He Lives.”
These days, Bill continues to record and tour with The Gaither Vocal Band. Gloria left the road years ago to raise their three kids and now enjoys being a grandmother of seven. She’s also served as co-owner and managing director of the Gaither Family Resource Center since it launched in 1996. A decade ago, the Gaithers founded “Homecoming: The Magazine,” and Gloria is integrally involved with the publication as well as the “Homecoming” CD/DVD projects.
Working on the new book was a labor of love. “Bill calls me the original Mrs. Christmas. I decorate everything,” Gloria says with a laugh. “Everyone has always come here for Thanksgiving since we were first married, so now it’s a 40-person entourage. My girls come in and help me cook all night.”
With help from her two daughters, Gloria cooks a feast for the family and leads the younger members in a favorite holiday activity. “When our children were little, one of our favorite traditions was to teach the children at Thanksgiving that gratitude is what Christmas is about and that Christmas is about them noticing even the least of these,” says the mother of three grown children— Suzanne, Amy and Benjamin. “On Thanksgiving afternoon we always have a craft where everybody sits around and makes something. For years that craft was making our first Christmas tree of the season. [We’d] make a Christmas tree for the wildlife. . . I would get pinecones, peanut butter, peanuts, and yarn. I would save orange halves carved out and grapefruit, birdseed and suet. We made little baskets out of the orange halves and filled them full of suet and birdseed. We spread peanut butter on the pinecones and rolled them in birdseed on a tray. We tied peanuts on the yarn and made strings of peanuts with red yarn that would catch the birds’ attention. We always strung cranberries on floral wire and then put them in a circle and twisted them at the top. We’d all go outside and decorate this pine tree with the things we made. Then the kids would come back and forth all through the season to watch the squirrels and birds and see what was left of their gift to the wildlife.”
It was a fun activity that conveyed a meaningful message to the children. “Our discussion was that Christmas is about God giving us his best gift,” she says. “We must leave no one out when we give and that includes the animals that are now having a hard time finding food because we are going to have snow soon. It made the children aware of nature and also taught them that the giving of Christmas was because of our gratitude.”
Gloria has fond memories of their Christmas celebrations in years past. “Christmas Eve was always spent with Bill’s family who celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve, so Bill’s mom and dad had Christmas Eve dinner full of children and babies and neighbors, and then our Christmas was on Christmas morning,” she recalls. “We’d get up and have coffee and juice and then we’d read the Christmas story and have our worship together. The children always took part in that. Our kids slept around the Christmas tree in sleeping bags on Christmas Eve, so they’d wake up in the middle of the floor, and as they got bigger, the floor got less space. We’d have our Christmas together and open our presents, and then we’d have breakfast. I make this traditional breakfast of homemade biscuits, dried beef gravy, fruit cups and juice. The kids can’t wait until I make that because I’m not a gravy person and this is a big treat for them.”
Though God has blessed them with success over the years, the Gaithers still live in the same home in Alexandria, Indiana, that they raised their children in. “We built our house when Suzanne was 18 months old,” says Gloria. “She was our first baby and we have lived here ever since and she is 46. . . We’d plant trees on the bare hillside and say, ‘One of these days our grandkids are going to love this. Now is the time, and they do. They ride all over the property with a golf cart. We’ve had a billion cookouts by the creek side, and everything about this place is full of so many memories.”
When asked to share her favorite memory, Gloria’s voice becomes emotional as she relates a story of cutting a Christmas tree with her father. “My dad was a pastor and my mother was a speaker and writer. She wrote a lot for our church publications,” says Gloria. “My dad was in a very difficult pastorate. He was there about seven years and did what he felt like he could do.”
Her dad resigned while she was away at college her freshman year, and her parents moved to a little cabin. Her sister had gotten married, and it was her first year to spend Christmas with her new husband’s family. Gloria’s grandmother had died so it was just Gloria and her parents that year. “There was just the three of us in that little frozen cottage,” she remembers. “I didn’t know it then, but my Dad was experiencing some congestive heart failure. He was just weary of struggling to build a church and everything. They were trying to be cheerful for me, and I was trying to be cheerful for them. We were all sad and Daddy said, ‘Do you want to go cut our own tree?’ So we went out and tromped through the Michigan woods. I remember walking behind him through the snow, and he always whistled when he was worried. He was whistling and the air from his whistling was going up above his head behind me. I could see the frozen breath, and I knew he was preoccupied. We found this little scraggly tree. It looked like a Charlie Brown tree, and he sawed it down. When he bent over and picked up the tarp and I picked up the top of the tree, something tangible shifted in my life. I actually consciously felt that this was the last of the time when I could afford to be a child.
“These people had poured so much into me, so much love, so much teaching and so much privilege. They sacrificed for me their whole life, and I knew at that moment when daddy picked up his end of the tree and I picked up my end that things had shifted and I was now responsible for my parents instead of them being responsible for me. We carried that tree back and set it up and made homemade ornaments out of tin foil and cardboard, which we all loved to do. Mother made this wonderful dinner, but it was just for three people. It wasn’t like it had always been.”
Her parents and their ministry immensely influenced Gloria, and though it might appear the high-profile music ministry she shares with Bill is vastly different from her parents, she says it’s not. “I would disagree that my ministry is very different from my father’s. It’s all about people and what you do. If you don’t like people, you shouldn’t do it. We have a public ministry, but I grew up in a public ministry. It was a smaller public, but quantity really doesn’t matter.”