Merry & Bright
A West Point home sparkles with holiday traditions and hospitality
Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Matt Garner
The spirit of Christmas is alive and well at Dr. Bill and Debbie Hill Billington’s home in West Point. There, the magical season begins to make its appearance in early November, well in advance of Dec. 25. After all, it’s no quick task to put up more than one dozen Christmas trees, especially the shimmering 14-foot beauty in the great room.
Decking the halls of this three-story home near Old Waverly Golf Club is a festive family affair. No professional decorators here. The transformation falls to Bill, Debbie and their four children — Lauren, Ross, Gary and Morgan — who now range in age from 19 to 29. Bill reaps as much enjoyment from the process as anyone. “I’m actually Debbie’s fifth child,” he joked.
Dianne Downer, a close family friend, is an integral part of the effort, too. (Beyond decorating, Dianne’s talents in years past have also run to conjuring up Ole St. Nick himself at the Billington’s, not to mention a dancing red light in the woods that could only have been the fleet-footed Rudolph, if the children’s excited squeals were any indicator.)
Throughout the home, doorways, mirrors and banisters twinkling with garlands form a backdrop for treasured family keepsakes, all in their appointed places. From a large-scale Fontanini Nativity in the entryway to humble mementos from childhood, each decoration unpacked stirs warm sentiment.
“There is this little reindeer that hangs in the kitchen from a certain nail, for example — and he has to hang on that same nail in that same spot every year, or we can’t have Christmas,” declared Debbie, with an animated grin.
No corner is overlooked. Some hold travel-themed trees draped with souvenirs from trips to Alaska, Hawaii and other locales. The second floor is whimsically Disney. A movie room overflows with Mickeys and Plutos, reminders of the months Morgan and Gary worked at Disney World during college.
One annual tradition is hanging stockings handmade by a beloved friend, the late Ollie Mae Tillman. They line the great room mantel, their stitches reciting the Christmas story from the Book of Luke. “Mama Tiggie,” as they called her, made the personalized stockings with the help of her daughter, Margaret Wilder of Brandon.
Everywhere, cozy seating invites family and friends to sit and visit.
“We’re real laid back; we live all over the house,” said Debbie of the dwelling her husband drew the plans for in evenings and afternoons off from his family medical practice.
“We wanted to make it livable, nice-looking and as maintenance-free as possible, so we incorporated concrete and steel wherever we could,” Bill explained. “While working on the plans, I had those erasers that were about 4 inches long. After I used two of them up I thought, ‘Well, that’s enough’ — and I quit drawing,” he added with droll humor.
Debbie remembers well that the house took “three years to draw, two years to build, and we finally moved in on a Saturday in June 1992, and Ross was born on Monday. We don’t do things the easy way sometimes.”
If there’s one thing the Billingtons enjoy more than Christmas, it’s sharing it. The holidays have always revolved around church parties and gatherings of friends and family.
“Anchor Club, Lauren’s basketball team, the boys’ fraternity buddies … Mama’s bridge ladies love coming out here; they’re really sweet friends,” said Debbie. “We love to have everybody, the more the merrier.”
If ever the thought of skipping the intense annual decorative rush comes up, Debbie and the family just think of Mama Tiggie.
“She lived to be almost 100. Whenever I think about not decorating, I remember how she and the other ladies would say it made their Christmas, and that makes it all more than worth it.”