Gail Gassen has enough Christmas spirit for an entire community, which is why she opens her own “Festival of Lights” in her River Landing apartment each year.

“It’s my gift to River Landing,” says Gail. “And I love every moment of it.” According to Gail, everything has a memory in her winter wonderland.

Born in rural Wisconsin where nobody had money, Gail’s family home didn’t have heat upstairs. She even remembers when they had inside plumbing for the first time. But Christmastime was always important to her and her family.

“My father would cut down a tree at the side of the road,” explains Gail. “We had three strands of lights with 36 lights on our Charlie Brown Christmas tree.”

When Gail was 11 years old, her mother started working for 25 cents an hour to save up money to send Gail to college. One year, “mom bought a wreath for 98 cents, which took four hours of work to pay for,” says Gail.

Her mom was a good baker, as well, making 50 different kinds of Christmas cookies. Gail would do the cut-out cookies. But her sister was the artist. “She turned each cookie into a work of art,” says Gail. When the cookies had been baked and wrapped with special care on a paper plate, Gail would deliver them to nearby homes of widows with young children. She would hide behind a tree after dropping them off at their door, just to make sure the cookies were found by the families.

Today, Christmas is every bit as special to Gail.

Her annual display started soon after she moved to River Landing in November, five years ago. Having downsized, she had gotten rid of many of the lights and decorations from her home. However, she decided then that it was the perfect time for a new beginning. “Because I’m silly and I like to do these things,” Gail says with a laugh.

She started accumulating new pieces, like the trees and lights, along with displaying her favorites from a lifetime of memories. And each year she has added a little more, from the nutcrackers she got during her time working for the Boston Ballet to Noel, the toy cat that a friend gave her that “comes to life” this time of year. Now it’s an annual event that people of all ages come to see and enjoy.

The three trees in her apartment now have more than 1,000 lights each. And the wreath that her mom worked so hard to buy is on display, too. The decorations have taken over three rooms in her apartment. Even though she has much of the displays on timers, it still takes an hour to turn everything on every evening.

However, her Christmas display isn’t about getting recognition or attention. For Gail, the real gift is in seeing others, young and old, get lost in their own Christmas memories. “It’s not what you’re looking at, but what you see that counts,” says Gail, paraphrasing Henry David Thoreau. Although she tries not to speak to people visiting the display because she wants everyone to remember what Christmas means to them, she enjoys when they share their memories and stories with her. To Gail, that is the gift she gets every time somebody comes in.

Last year, one of the highlights for her was seeing a “precocious 12-month-old girl… looking and grinning and jabbering, which made Noel (the toy cat) start to play… she got hysterically happy,” says Gail. “What greater Christmas gift could I be given than watching this 12-month-old discover lights? I am blessed.”

Judging by the countless notes and smiles she receives, her fellow River Landing residents feel blessed, as well. Happy Holidays!

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