Famous Alabamians’ holiday greetings
Angels, Elvis and politicians all find a place in the holiday season greetings of famous Alabamians
By M.J. Ellington
The good wishes of governors, other politicians and famous people are in the collections preserved for the future generations at the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Funny, serious or poignant in message, they tell something about the world and the people who received them at the time they were sent.
The greetings by themselves may not hold much historic value to archival experts. But as part of a broader collection, they are a link to milestones in history, says Mary Jo Scott, head of the Archives’ special collections.
Scott’s favorite Christmas card is a shiny oversized full-color postcard sent in 1974 from Elvis Presley to Gov. George C. Wallace. “It makes me smile,” Scott says.
The card shows Elvis performing in a spangled white costume singing in front of a giant white Christmas tree with pastel ornaments. A Santa Claus, who may be his manager “Colonel Tom” Parker in costume, and two Saint Bernards are nearby. The wording on the card reads, “Seasons Greetings, Elvis and the Colonel and friends.”
Another longtime favorite card at Archives, and Scott’s second favorite, is the whimsical 1951 official Christmas card of Gov. James E. “Big Jim” Folsom and his wife Jamelle.
The cover photograph shows the Folsom home in Cullman with the sentiment “Home: Cullman, Ala.” Inside is an artist’s drawing of a green convertible with a reindeer hood ornament and a banner depicting a red sleigh instead of car doors.
Photographs of the Folsoms in the front seat and four little children, Rachel, Melissa, “Little Jim” and “Little Jack” in the back seat, complete the illustration. Folsom’s first term as governor would end the next month and, under Alabama law at the time, governors could not serve two consecutive terms. The family was headed back to Cullman for Folsom to resume his insurance business and plan for his return to the governor’s office in 1955.
One toddler in the car, James E. Folsom Jr., would grow up to win multiple elections as public service commissioner and lieutenant governor. “Little Jim” also became the state’s chief executive for part of a term when then-Gov. Guy Hunt was removed from office in 1993.
1972 card had more serious tone
The dramatic cover of the 1972 Christmas card that Gov. George C. Wallace and his wife, Cornelia, sent had a very different tone in quite different circumstances. The card depicted the winning entry of a Christmas card contest that highlighted works of Alabama artists. Cornelia Wallace was the niece of “Big Jim” Folsom.
The winning painting, by Huntsville artist Robert Forstner, showed six angels in a night sky hovering with wings outstretched over the governor’s mansion. Inside the card read “May the Angels of the Lord watch over you and yours now and throughout the coming years.”
Wallace had been paralyzed from the waist down by a sniper shooting the previous May in Laurel, Maryland, and would never walk again.
The following year, an Alabamian who had received the 1972 card sent a handwritten card back to the first family. It read, “We too say ‘May the angels of the Lord watch over you and yours now and throughout the coming years.’ You are often in our prayers.”
A more typical 1966 Christmas card has a traditional cover with a black and white photo of a husband, wife and four young children on the inside cover.
The message, however, was a celebration of the season and a hope for the future from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his wife Coretta and children Yolanda, Martin III, Dexter and Bernice.
“New systems of justice and equality are being born. Let us nourish this new life with love and brotherhood,” the printed message reads. “…If we follow the spirit of this season, we shall awaken from a midnight of despair to a glorious morning of peace and goodwill.”
The civil rights leader who urged nonviolence in the face of violence was killed by a sniper in April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
Not all holiday messages in the collections involve famous people.
Cards from movie stars, national politicians and average citizens offer hope and goodwill. Cards and letters from soldiers from the Civil War to today describe how the soldiers spent or planned to spend Christmas Day and how they longed to be with family.
As a group, the messages convey hope that the coming year will bring peace and a better life across Alabama, just as modern holiday greetings do.
M.J. Ellington is a Montgomery freelance journalist whose longtime health and state government reporting and editing career included the Montgomery Advertiser, The Decatur Daily, Florence Times-Daily and The Anniston Star. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.