Hope. The love of family and community. Faith against all odds. Such were the prevailing themes of Dolly Parton's Christmas of Many Colors, and they seemed especially weighted this year.
Because watching Dolly Parton's annual holiday TV special, it was impossible not to consider the movie in context to the devastating wildfires that recently ravaged the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. After all, that's where Dolly's story unfolded in real life, and accordingly, onscreen too.
Growing up, my grandparents had a cabin on top of Sheepback Mountain in Maggie Valley, North Carolina — also in the Great Smoky Mountains area, but about 60 miles shy of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We spent several weeks spread out over the summer and winter every year in those mountains.
And our trips nearly always included a stop at Dolly Parton's Dollywood theme park. It's no big secret to those who know me that I'm a huge Parton fan, and I think as a child I looked at her with the same wide-eyed wonder that little Dolly looked at the "painted lady" she modeled herself after with.
Part of what makes watching Parton's Christmas specials so much fun is the wave of nostalgia that hits when I do. It's the longing to smell the smoky mountain air and memories of my grandparents flooding back in that typically make me ache a little inside (in a good way, though).
Only this year, the special had added poignancy because of the tragedy that has befallen the very areas Parton brings to life onscreen.
At the time this article was written, the death toll in Sevier County, Tennessee, had climbed to seven. Several people still missing, while many others being treated for smoke inhalation. So far, the raging blaze has torched around 15,000 acres in eastern Tennessee, with popular tourist town Gatlinburg suffering particularly catastrophic damage.
The stories emerging in the aftermath are equally tragic: stories of fathers separated from families, mothers missing, families torn apart in the chaos of the blaze.
Parton — whose special this year centered on having faith and hope in seemingly insurmountable circumstances — feels the pain of her people deeply. In a video message posted to her Facebook page on Wednesday night, the star issued a moving statement:
"As you may know by now, there have been terrible wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains, the same mountains where I grew up and where my people call home.
I have always believed that charity begins at home. That’s why I’ve asked my Dollywood Companies – Including the Dollywood Theme Park, and DreamMore Resort; My dinner theater attractions including Dixie Stampede and Lumberjack Adventure; and my Dollywood Foundation to help me establish the “My People Fund.”
We want to provide a hand up to those families who have lost everything in the fires. To aid in their recovery effort, the Dollywood Foundation will provide $1,000 a month to all of those families who lost their homes in the fires for six months so that they can get back on their feet."
According to Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters, "That's an unbelievable gesture, but it's not surprising. Dolly Parton has been an advocate for Sevier County her entire life."
Kind of gives you a big lump in your throat, doesn't it? Parton is doing her part to help the people of eastern Tennessee so tragically affected by the wildfires, and it makes it easy to see the plucky, faith-filled little girl from Christmas of Many Colors in her actions. If the film at times seemed fantastical to some, it's because Parton's life has been fantastical.
Knowing what is happening right now in the mountains where Parton grew from a starry-eyed child into the performer we all now know and love, this year's Christmas special was heart-wrenching, yes — but also hopeful. The message of the movie was that there can be Christmas miracles, and I think that's a hope the people of eastern Tennessee need to believe in right now.
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