Comfort & Joy: Judge Deanell Tacha decorates home with spirit, sentiment

Deanell Tacha, chief judge of the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, has a large collection of Christmas decor spanning two decades. Much of it carries sentimental family ties.

This might not be the brightest holiday season for many people. With the shaky economy, the days of plenty and overindulgence may just go by the way of last year’s eggnog and fruit cake.

One of Lawrence’s residents might just be in tune with the state of our union, our neighbors and our livelihoods a little more than most. She’s Deanell Tacha, chief judge of 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Having sat on the bench of upward of a quarter-century, Tacha has had a front-row view of the recent tragedies that have fallen on our great nation.

“My job is challenging, and I have to keep sentimentality out of it and do what the law requires,” she says. “I know the reason I love my house and yard and feeding the birds is because it gives me perspective from what I see on the bench every day. We will have a wonderful, warm Christmas, but with the economic circumstances this year, we are really trying to give a lot to others here and around the world.”

Tacha’s home is indeed warm and wonderful. The Christmas cheer is tucked in corners, dangling from light fixtures, and displayed on tabletops and mantels. The theme is quite evident, with the word “celebrate” greeting visitors on the front stoop as you enter the home.

So what is the spirit of Christmas for Tacha?

“For me it is a celebration of the Christian message of love, redemption and hope,” she says. “It’s a story for me of bringing grace and forgiveness into the world. It is all about family, friends and instilling traditions.”

There is not a single gift in sight, but there is an indulgence of framed photographs depicting moments of Christmases past and of homemade ornaments and trinkets her four children lovingly crafted decades ago and traditions passed from generation to generation. This year was a particularly difficult one with the passing of both Deanell’s father and her husband, John Tacha’s, mother. That left her to realize the sobering fact that they are now the eldest generation of their family.

But deep sorrow often sprouts unbelievable joy in its shadow, and for Tacha that came in the arrival of her first two grandchildren, Anna Rose and Avery Reece.

She beams and says, “This year I’ve been really interested in stars. These two little babies are little stars to me. I don’t buy Christmas items because they are pretty, I’ll buy things because they remind me of something.”

Petite patent leather shoes hang from the tree as an ornament. One of the kids forgot her shoes, and now they will get dusted off every Christmas and hung on the tree.

Most of the holiday collections and keepsakes that crowd Tacha’s home are in that vein — items passed down from mothers and grandmothers. All of the beds are decked in Christmas quilts, many of which were sewn by John’s late mother. The Santa collection is ample and are full of stories and time, since many of the jolly men adorned great-grandparents’ mantels. There is a grouping of nutcrackers — Tacha’s sisters even found one that is a judge.

The collection of holiday music boxes is beautiful. Tacha points out one innately crafted carousel music box.

“Oh John, he is a great gift giver,” she says. “He just knows me better than anyone in the whole wide world.”

A grouping of Hummel statues fills a corner of a curio table top; each of the children received one upon their birth from their grandmother. But probably the most meaningful collection is the Dickens Village.

“One summer my great-aunt had me to her farm,” Tacha recalls. “She was an English teacher, and she had me read all of Charles Dickens, then she would give me quizzes. When she passed away she gave me her collection of early-edition Dickens novels. Later John and the kids started giving me a new piece of the Dickens village every year for Christmas.”

It’s a celebration of family and friends who enter our lives and pass — and an appreciation of the history of our families. What was cherished and precious to them now becomes cherished and precious to us.

It’s a time of gathering with those we relish, of reflecting on those we have loved and lost, a time of unabashed laughter and of course the celebration of the human spirit. In what could be considered a dismal holiday season we might only need to look through those dusty holiday pieces that make us chuckle, bring a tear to our eye and give us a moment of pause to really savor what the holidays truly mean.

— Jennifer Oldridge, a Kansas University graduate, is an avid gardener who previously operated a landscaping business.