Ten thousand lights for 100 years of Christmas
June 25, 2008 · Updated 12:50 PM
"Lyda McNamara (second from right) gives pieces of family silver to son Mike Gurnee while Gurnee's mother, Kit, and his daughter, Kim MacArthur, listen to the history of the gift.Matt Johnson / staff photoAbout a month ago, Mike and Kathy Gurnee started wondering how to make Christmas 2000 special for a woman who has seen Santa Claus more times during her life than most people see their own cousins. The East Harbor Road residents are having grandma to Christmas this year. Grandma -- Mike's grandma -- is 99-year-old Lyda McNamara, who on Monday opened presents pulled from underneath her 100th Christmas tree. Visiting South Whidbey from her home in Oregon, she is the focus of the Gurnee family Christmas this year. Even though they knew about the occasion in advance, one question has been on the Gurnees' minds for more than a month: What do you do for a woman who has seen 100 Christmas Days?Normally big-time holiday decorators, the Gurnees decided to go over the top this year when they learned that McNamara and the rest of the Gurnee clan would be coming to Christmas dinner at their little farmhouse. Mike made his mark outside, hanging 10,000 lights on the house, the outbuildings, and anything else he could reach with an extension cord and tiny light bulbs. That is a few thousand more than last year.This year, it's a little extra, Mike said.Inside, the couple turned their living room into Christmas central, complete with a perfectly symmetrical tree, a lighted Christmas village on the fireplace mantel, and a pile of presents big enough to satisfy brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and, of course, grandma.The couple is not trying to make just Grandma McNamara's Christmas memorable -- they are also hoping to help her forget the Christmas Day 29 years ago when her husband died of a heart attack.Christmas has always been a bad spot for me, McNamara said.But this week, no one could tell. Neither a sad Christmas past nor her 99 years of age seemed to weigh on McNamara as she walked around the Gurnees' living room looking at decorations and gifts. Buoyed by her family and the season, she looked like a woman of 70 and acted like a girl of 16. She said she could not get a handle on the fact that this Christmas was her 100th.Even I hadn't thought of that, she said.Only good Christmas thoughts were bubbling to the surface for McNamara this week. Her earliest Christmas memories are of the sorts of things American Christmas traditions are built on, the scenes that appear in Christmas storybooks. Growing up on a farm in Nebraska, McNamara got used to the sight of snow on the ground for Christmas and sleigh rides to neighbors' homes, paced by the sound of jingle bells hanging from the horses' halters. To make a connection between those days and the last Christmas of the millennium, McNamara gave a special gift to Mike and Kathy. After dinner Monday night, she handed a small box to Kathy. Inside were three silver serving pieces dated 1876. They had belonged to the first McNamaras to come to the United States from Ireland.We were just shocked, Kathy Gurnee said of the 8-generation-old gift.The silver was on the table during the holidays as the Gurnees served two family holiday dinners. Kathy, who said that she did not grow up in a family with strong holiday traditions, said hosting the 5-generation gatherings is something she feels fortunate to do.It's just very special, she said.The Gurnees' festive holiday spirit is visible in their nightly holiday light show at 4791 East Harbor Road. "