The star of multiple Hallmark holiday movies wants to help you find the spirit of the season.
Posted in , Oct 26, 2020
Like everyone else, I’d been doing all I could to hold things together during the pandemic lockdown, especially for our four-year-old daughter, Julia, but I couldn’t always hide my anxiety. Life as we’d known it had changed in so many ways. Here it was the middle of summer, and hopefully I’d soon be able to go back to work on my next Hallmark Christmas movie, Christmas Waltz, but the joy of the holidays felt miles away.
Matchmaker Santa; Love, Romance & Chocolate; Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe—those movies always made people happy and, I hoped, reassured them that things would turn out for the best. More than ever, I saw the importance of making movies that bring some light into the world, but lately I’d been missing that Yuletide feeling.
I worried about my loved ones, especially my parents. I was concerned for their health and well-being. In normal times, I visit them in Texas as often as I can. Not now. Not since last Christmas, when we all got together. When the anxiety of sheltering in place was wearing on me, I had to remind myself that it’s okay to not be okay and to simply say to God, “I’m afraid.”
I grew up in Purvis, Mississippi, on 20 acres, near my mom’s parents, Nanny and Papaw. First thing in the morning, Mom would open the back door and we’d dash out, making forts, dreaming up shows, racing through the sprinklers, bouncing on the trampoline. I would put on plays and musicals with my two older sisters and younger brother. We’d invite our grandparents, hand out programs, even serve snacks.
Was I thinking about pursuing a career as a performer? Not back then. All I knew was, I loved to sing and dance and make people smile. It was just something in me, I guess.
My parents must have seen that too. We went to New York the summer I was seven. I did a few auditions, got an agent. All at once what I did for fun at home, I was doing in front of a camera: TV commercials, a part on the soap opera All My Children. After auditioning a few times, I was cast as young Cosette in the Broadway musical Les Misérables. I loved singing her song, “Castle on a Cloud.”
I was also the understudy for Gavroche, the boy’s role, an exciting and demanding role that I hadn’t quite finished learning. On my tenth birthday, I walked into the theater with cupcakes, excited to celebrate with the other kids backstage. The stage manager met me at the theater door; the two boys were out and I would have to go on as Gavroche. They tucked my hair under a hat, put me in the costume. No time to get worried or scared. The show must go on!
The cast was so supportive, discreetly guiding me through the choreography. I sang my heart out and did my best. It was a thrill and a joy to face that challenge. Whenever I get intimidated or nervous about things now, I remember that moment. How to deal with your fears? Go right through them. Ask for support, believe in yourself and trust God.
We couldn’t always get home to Mississippi to be with Nanny and Papaw on the actual day of Thanksgiving or Christmas. But then I’d already gotten used to that. Dad worked offshore for an oil company, on a week, then off a week. If his shift coincided with the holidays, no problem. We’d just move the celebration!
Dad’s Cajun, and we enjoyed his seafood jambalaya at Thanksgiving and his gumbo with potato salad and rice on Christmas Eve—or whenever we celebrated the holidays. Between Dad’s amazing Cajun cooking and Mom’s incredible Southern food, family gatherings always centered around a delicious meal. My favorite dish is the sweet potato casserole, my great-grandmother’s recipe. Some people put marshmallows on top, but I’m partial to my family’s brown sugar pecan topping.
On Christmas Eve, Dad would read us the Nativity story out of the Bible. Then my siblings and I would sleep in the same room because we were so excited about Santa coming. We’d wake up at the crack of dawn, but the rule was, you couldn’t look at the presents until Mom and Dad were up too. We’d knock on their door. “It’s too early!” they’d say. “Go back to bed.” Five minutes later, we’d be pounding at their door and they’d get up.
Nothing was more magical than seeing the Christmas tree lit up with presents beneath it. If I close my eyes, I can feel the magic now.
We’d have Christmas at our house first, then at Nanny’s house. One year, my sister Wendy and I crawled under Nanny’s tree, decorated with all her handmade ornaments, the snowmen and Santa Claus sparkling with red and white sequins. We grabbed a present and unwrapped it—probably the most rebellious thing I ever did as a kid.
We were really careful about undoing all the tape without ripping the paper. We took a peek, then wrapped the present back up—equally carefully, we thought. We were found out, of course, because no one wrapped a present as beautifully as my dear grandmother.
The holidays hold my most treasured childhood memories—times of togetherness and deep love—so maybe it’s no wonder that stories centered around the holidays would be such a big part of my career now.
True, the movies usually have to be shot at different times of year. Sometimes the snow is real, but more often it’s this mixture similar to soap bubbles blown out of a fan. And there’s this other kind of snow that’s made out of what looks like mashed potato flakes. Once I got so much caught in my hair, it looked as if I were wearing a hat made of snow! Let’s just say we had to do that take of the scene again.
Sadly, Nanny and Papaw are no longer with us, so this past year we spent Christmas at my parents’ home in Texas. We gathered together—my siblings and their families, my husband and Julia and me. Christmas Eve, we sat around the tree in my parents’ living room, everyone in their pajamas. We played a silly white elephant game. We laughed and laughed.
Then, before everyone went to bed, we settled down and listened to my dad read the Nativity story, just as he did when I was little. It was a nostalgic moment. Simple and beautiful and full of love. It’s a feeling I hope to infuse in all of my Christmas movies.
Then the pandemic hit. My husband, Julia and I had to stay home in southern California. We couldn’t travel to see Mom and Dad. I couldn’t stop worrying about them. My mom is Julie—Julia is named after her—and my dad is Tony. They were high school sweethearts. He was the quarterback on the Purvis football team, and she was the head cheerleader and yearbook photographer. A picture-perfect couple if there ever was one.
Instead of visiting, I was calling them every day, having groceries delivered so they didn’t have to leave the house. It was difficult not to worry, but that’s when I realized that my worry didn’t mean a lack of faith. I just needed to lean deeper into my faith in God. Even when we can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, because of God’s faithfulness we can still trust that it is there.
People have messaged me on Instagram, talked to me at Christmas Con, telling me how a particular film has offered them the comfort they needed in a tough time. I put my heart into my roles and always try to bring in a bit of my personal life. I even wore my own wedding dress in A Royal Christmas.
A few years back, when Mom had to be hospitalized (she’s fine now), a relative of another patient recognized me. “Would you please say hello to my sister?” she asked. “It would mean so much to her.” I was glad to. I don’t think people realize just how much these conversations actually mean to me.
If my work could bring such comfort to others, with God’s help, why couldn’t I find it for myself? The sadness and heaviness in the world under lockdown was really getting to me.
One day in July, I was snuggling with Julia on the sofa. She was missing her friends, missing normal life. “Mom,” she asked, “can we make it Christmas now?” I looked out the window, palm trees blowing in a warm breeze. Things are always green in California, but this was months away from Christmas.
Then I remembered how we moved the holidays around when I was a kid, for Dad and his work schedule, for me and my work schedule, for us. Christmas, Thanksgiving, they could come any time of year, couldn’t they, especially when you needed them most?
“Yes,” I said. “Let’s do it.” Wasn’t the message of Christmas meant to last all year long? It could be celebrated no matter the season—with mashed potato flakes for snow if need be!
I found a tiny tree, and we took it to Julia’s room. She decorated it with her favorite little toys. We flipped on the twinkly lights, and the tree looked ready for Santa to come any day now.
During quarantine, I did a lot of decluttering, looking through old boxes, emptying a storage unit. In the bottom of one box, I discovered a little pink Bible, my first one. I thumbed through it for the Nativity story, hearing it in my head the way Dad read it. There it was, the words I was looking for, the message, what the angel said to the shepherds and to Mary: “Fear not. I bring you good news of great joy.” The peace, joy and hope that accompanied the birth of Jesus not only then but now and always.
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