Margaret Mitchell was on her way to see a movie when she was struck by an off-duty cabbie driving too fast down Peachtree Street one night in Atlanta in 1949. Her death five days later cemented certain facts of her life, most notably that her first novel would also be her last. But she had made the most of her debut: in its nearly 1,500 pages, Gone with the Wind captured the romance and demise of America’s Old South like none other before or since, sold one million copies within six months of its publication, secured a Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1937, and inspired one of the most beloved motion pictures of all time.
Little was said about Mitchell’s death one recent evening in Atlanta, when several dozen of her fans—Windies, as they like to be called—gathered for a tour and graveside toast at the historic Oakland Cemetery, where Mitchell is buried and where her plot is among the most visited. The soiree was one of many held in and around the city this month in honor of Gone with the Wind’s seventy-fifth anniversary. The crowd was almost entirely female; Gone with the Wind handbags abounded, and at least one wristwatch bore the iconic image of Rhett and Scarlett’s smoldering onscreen embrace. Though most wore street clothes, some ladies had arrived in 1860s-ish period dress, their dedication eclipsing both the melting late-afternoon heat and the outfits’ flagrant anachronisms—clip-on chignons, hemlines revealing reputation-shattering amounts of ankle, synthetic fabrics not invented in Mitchell’s lifetime.
Until recently, I was only vaguely acquainted with Scarlett O’Hara. I was raised in Tennessee by multigenerational Southerners and grew up visiting Civil War battlefields on field trips and family vacations. I went to college in Atlanta—Mitchell’s hometown and the setting for most of her opus—and have lived here ever since. But my knowledge of Gone with the Wind was only sufficient enough to know that Rhett Butler’s most famous line from the movie perfectly summed up my sentiments regarding the whole franchise: frankly, my dear, I didn’t give a damn.
My family’s annual Christmas Eve tradition of ogling holiday lights was cemented as soon as my younger sister and I were big enough to peep out of the windows of our family’s Dodge Caravan. Sucking down hot chocolate and munching sugar cookies in the backseat as our parents navigated every last suburban enclave of Chattanooga, Tennessee, we oohed and aahed indiscriminately at any structure draped with flickering bulbs on strings.
We’re pickier now. We avoid the subdivisions with obvious neighborhood association–enforced strictures of white lights, red ribbons, and evergreen boughs. We like gawking at failure: poorly draped, overly bright LED strands, inflatable Santas gone flaccid, blown-over flocks of animated wooden reindeer. But what we crave most is the audacious triumph of a place bold and bright and strange enough to be called a Christmas House.
This is an unofficial title, of course, and there were certainly other worthy contenders around Chattanooga, but for my family’s gas mileage, the best bet was Ron and Judy McGill’s. For years running, we’d cap off our Christmas Eve tour of lights with a pilgrimage across town, turning down the inconspicuous side street and joining the line of cars slowly snaking down to the end of the block. The house was inconspicuous most of the year, but shortly after Thanksgiving it would become obscured by a front and side yard densely packed with what functioned as a discombobulated catalogue of every kind of Christmas decoration made available for purchase over the past thirty years. If Christmas Homes have one thing in common, it is probably their disdain for the whole “one true God” concept as it relates to their yuletide décor. Multiple nativity scenes abounded. Electric trains zipped around inflatable Homer Simpsons and Grinches dressed in Santa suits. Gingerbread men with shit-eating grins plastered the rails of a gazebo, from under which life-size statues of Santa and Mrs. Claus peered out over the madness, flanked by two giant, pensive snowmen. Miniature blow-mold Santas, impaled Vladlike on fence posts, stood sentinel between the yard and the endless procession of passersby. Even over the grumble of idling car engines and the McGill’s looping soundtrack of Christmas with the Chipmunks we could hear the whirring, the clattering, the humming of all the tiny mechanized parts and pumps and thousands of electric bulbs burning away. They emitted a palpable heat.
Ron and Judy McGill, whose proprietorship was announced on a lit-up wooden sign staked into the ditch out front, watched the reverse-parade from lawn chairs under their carport, the only bare spot on the lot. Sometimes one of them would step out to the street and hand out peppermints and humbly accept the few bucks we’d pass back to offset the power bill incurred for our pleasure. But that’s as close as we ever got to them.