It's a Wonderful Life in Madison

Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?--Clarence Odbody-It's a Wonderful Life

There is something magnetic about the magic of the merriest season of them all. Each Christmas I become a child again. I am four, waking up early to listen for sleigh bells. I am six, examining the snow for reindeer tracks. I am ten, singing in the Christmas choir. I stop short of thirteen. At 12, I sit to write. I predict my Christmas future. It's a cliche but there's a white fence, a house similar to Susan's in Miracle on 34th Street, and I live in Bedford Falls. P.S. In this prepubescent piece of mine, a descendant of George Bailey's, with his charming character, undeniable handsome stature, and impressive moral compass, asks me to be his forever girl. I am Katie Bailey, living in Bedford Falls, an oasis rooted in Christmas tradition.

I am an It's a Wonderful Life aficionado. I owe it all to my mother. Her enthusiasm for Frank Capra's classic Christmas film knows no bounds. She is my angel-on-earth, so in essence, my Clarence Odbody. Her understanding of the thematic message of generosity over grandiose gestures is a roadmap for her civility and compassion. She is a champion of the George Bailey belief system and it serves her well. More importantly, it serves others.

I never imagined the Christmas writing and wishes of a 12-year-old dreamer could be matched. But here I am, 36, and my Christmas dreams have come true. My Bedford Falls, better known as Madison, NJ, is a snowglobe of scenic delights. From lampposts wrapped in lights to wreaths adorned with bows, I am mesmerized. And as big and beautiful as our town tree is, I am forever focused on the quaintness of Santa's house and the spark to the season, which is better known as the holiday parade.

But who made this town so idyllic? Who am I to thank for my living portrait of a winter scene from a Kinkaid painting? I am a Christmas consumer. I desire to be a Christmas contributor. After all, it's the George Bailey way.

So I set in search of the Christmas committee. They're the magic makers and stewards of seasonal celebrations. I knew there was a story behind the specialness.

First up, a search via Facebook. Next, a tag of Kristina Toto. This process, while so 21st century, led to an old-fashioned phone call. Kristina explained that her husband's family is deeply rooted in the tradition as the Santa House began with her husband's grandfather, Carmine Toto Sr. And while his story of building a family restoration and historical contracting business is impressive, so impressive as it remains in operation and family owned today, it was his love of Christmas and his gift of the first Santa house that began a beloved pastime .

Kristina spoke about the efforts, which as I expected, begin as early as August. Love and labor surround every decision and decoration. From the generosity of boy scouts hanging wreaths to the time and talent of Frank and his family at Madison Pharmacy, several volunteers and vendors are involved. It's this community effort that keeps the Toto's invigorated and inspired.

Kristina put me in touch with her father-in-law, Carmine Jr., to provide more history and context to the celebrations. In genuine and generous form, he spoke at length about the people behind every merry marker in our town. He sang the praises of Francis Xavier Doherty and Margaret Weisberger, organizers of the first ever parade in 1978. His pride was palpable when we discussed the time and talent of our beloved Santa Claus. The Christmas committee is comprised of business owners and families, and he's grateful to all for their love of the holiday, which is what motivated his father to begin.

It's a life and lesson George Bailey would invest in. An immigrant from Italy who came with nothing and built a business and family tied to a town with possibilities and the promise of roots. This year the Toto family retired Santa's House, which while not the original, was forty years old. The newest Santa House was built as a replica and in tribute to the original one from 1955.

Knowing the story behind someone or something makes passion more powerful and present. This Christmas I’ll be able to identify the legacies of love within the seasonal scenery. As I march my girls to the parade alongside my husband, who happens to be very George Baileyish, I’ll be doing so with a greater appreciation and admiration for the hours of kindness and creativity involved. To our department of public works, the Christmas committee, and the Toto family, thank you. Mom, get ready. I have something better than Bedford Falls. I have Madison.

Here’s to wishes and a wonderful life.

Katie ZurichComment