Christmas at Cliff Lawn

By Ashley Caldwell Levi

Descendants of H.G. Hill Sr., founder of Nashville's H.G. Hill Company, gather every Christmas for a luncheon at the chairman's home. A fourth-generation family member gives us a peek inside the dining room, and describes how the family council saved Christmas for the family.

Cliff Lawn, the 105-year-old Hill family home in Nashville, has hosted six generations of the Hill family at Christmastime. Home to Barry and Wentworth Caldwell Jr. since 1973, Cliff Lawn has been in the H.G. Hill family for three generations. Wentworth Caldwell Jr.—my father—is chairman of the H.G. Hill Company, a family-owned real estate business established in 1895. He has worked full-time for the family business for 50 years. My three sisters and I grew up at Cliff Lawn.

Every year on Christmas Day, members of the Hill family (more than 46 direct lineal descendants, plus their spouses) are invited to a seated luncheon at 12:30 p.m. Fond memories and shared customs have shaped the holiday celebration. My great-grandmother, Mamie Hill, started the tradition. She loved having the family gather for a big luncheon on Christmas Day. Today, if all the family invitees (62) actually RSVPd in the affirmative, we would be spilling out into the street! Christmas at Cliff Lawn is a wonderful occasion. We consider the tradition to be part of our family "glue."

Open up the antique dining room sideboard at any time of the year, and you'll find it crammed full of used place cards. I always thought this was kind of weird. My mother is not a recycler. "Cheap" isn't a word I would use to describe her, either. Yet for years and years she has salvaged the (sometimes food-stained) cards after lunch has concluded. It's a wise idea, really. When I try to count all the cousins who are invited to Christmas lunch at Cliff Lawn, I easily exhaust myself. These place cards definitely come in handy for keeping track!

A formal affair

Christmas Day luncheon is a very formal affair produced on a grand scale. It takes days, and a lot of physical, mental and emotional energy, to execute. The tables (there are several of them) are set a week in advance. This is the only time of year that silver goblets and flatware, crystal and china, and other elegant tableware are pulled from the floor-to-ceiling locked cabinets. The items are cleaned by hand, polished, and counted and re-counted. The white, starched, monogrammed linens are unwrapped from their dry-cleaning bags, counted, re-counted and put in place. The silver coffee urn, tiny silver coffee spoons and demitasse cups are placed on an antique table in the living room for après-luncheon. Every year my mother complains about this massive undertaking, and every year my father begs her to do it again. Like my grandmother and great-grandmother before her, she has exquisite taste and can execute the tradition established for the family celebration so long ago.

The fuss involved in dressing for the occasion is on par with the elegant setting. My great-grandmother loved having the family gather for a big Christmas lunch, and insisted on dressing in her finest. Everyone else was expected to do the same. The children wore velvet suits and dresses with lace collars. The men were attired in three-piece suits, and the ladies always wore their special Christmas dresses.

The children were not allowed to bring their favorite toy from Santa to the luncheon. This was mandated by the older generation, who feared a slip-and-fall on a truck or doll. As the cliché goes, "Children were meant to be seen and not heard." Thus, the younger generation and their young families dined in a separate room, the sun porch, off the main dining room. Well, that was fine with them, because it provided a more direct, stealthy route to the bar set up by the kitchen!

Nowadays, the seating isn't so much a function of age or hierarchy. Most large family celebrations involve a "big" table and a "kids" table. But in our case, there are three "kids" tables—and the "kids" range in age from 1 to 60. The "big" table is reserved for the most senior (third-generation) members of the family, and for those either engaged to be married or pregnant. The rest of us appreciate just having a space to sit and eat comfortably. Be sure to bring your own drink to the table. The chairs are arranged so tightly that once you sit down, you might not be able to get up!

What's a family meal without drama?

Of course, this family Christmas luncheon has seen its share of drama. There was the year that the cook forgot to cook the turkey! Long into the cocktail hour(s) it was discovered that although the cook prepped the turkey and placed it inside the oven hours earlier, he had forgotten to turn on the oven. Needless to say, the party continued, and I assume the turkey tasted better than ever when it was finally ready.

Another legendary family Christmas was the year that little Jimmy pushed cousin Edward into the pond and knocked out all his front teeth. A bloody sight and soaking wet, Edward (affectionately called "Prince") was wearing his new blue velvet suit with a lace collar. His mother, Aunt Frances, still talks about that velvet suit.

And of course, when a business family gets together for Christmas, there is sometimes a tense discussion or two. Gather together the cousins, the in-laws and the out-of-towners, and the comments or quips can become competitive in tone. The Christmas gathering can turn into a stage for someone's posturing or an opportunity to comment or criticize. I observed this beginning to happen in our family several years ago. Some family members, especially the younger ones, might not recognize this scenario. That's good.

Whether anyone else witnessed it or not, I am aware that there were a few Christmas lunches when some strong opinions were shared on the subject of the family business and some stressful moments arose. These were brief, but I noticed them because the mood lingered with my father, the chairman/host, long after the last guest had left. Christmas is calmer now that we have a family council. In a way, our family council saved the Christmas celebration for our family.

Before the Hill Family Council was established in 2005, the only occasion to meet and discuss H.G. Hill business was the annual shareholders' meeting in May. At this meeting, the shareholders heard a report from management. Suffice it to say, there wasn't a Q&A period, or any interactive feedback or sharing, if you will. If any issues, concerns or questions cropped up about the family business, they would fester until we were together again at Christmas. I think we all agree that Christmas lunch is never the right time or place to talk business, especially after a glass of wine or two.

Never did I anticipate that the Hill Family Council, which meets monthly, would be such an important Christmas gift for our family. We now have an appropriate place to voice our concerns and share constructive criticism. The benefit is seen and unseen. Now Christmas lunch is reserved for our special family celebration.

Old and new traditions

Over the years, the party has seen some changes. Of course, the traditions remain. However, the dress code has relaxed a little bit. The children now arrive toting a favorite new toy, and are encouraged and enjoyed by the adults. In fact, the children have created their own tradition of commandeering the entry-hall staircase for their fifth-generation group photo. It is delightful to see the curious kids climbing all over Cliff Lawn and exploring what must seem imposing and antique. After all, they get the invitation only once a year.

I watch the little cousins discover the hidden "Service" buzzer in the library, or comment about the scary portrait of Great-Great-Aunt Elizabeth ("Tante") in the living room. Inevitably, someone will tell the story of the household ghost, "Broderick," starting with whispers that soon morph into shrieks and ultimately scare a child to tears. Screams, running and loud laughter always follow.

When we gather round to say a blessing and give thanks at the start of the meal, more than a few tears are shed. Perhaps it's nostalgia, ambivalence or overwhelming gratitude. Behind my own tears, I wonder how long this tradition will last. The family is growing larger. The fifth generation is marrying and multiplying. In ten years' time, we could be looking at a luncheon for 100! Where do we go from here? Who would be willing to take on the colossal task and financial obligation in the years to come? How do we continue to manage and maintain this holiday tradition that is so beloved in our family? Without Cliff Lawn or senior family leadership in the family business, would it still be relevant? Is it time for new traditions? Do my children care? Do they fully appreciate a long, formal family luncheon in the finest tradition of Southern style and hospitality? Would they rather be on a beach, or a ski slope or at home (still in their pajamas) and nibbling on caramel cake?

I think we all share this concern, which is a little comforting. I think this because, one year while all the little children were scrambling to find space on the front steps for the annual photograph, I heard my father's booming voice from the back of the room. "Raise your hand if you know whose house this is! And what's MY NAME?!"

As a family, we are all so grateful to my mother and father for hosting Christmas luncheon at their home. They willingly take on the task and give up their day for family and tradition. On this day we were always meant to celebrate our family, share, give and be grateful. These shared values are exactly why Christmas luncheon at Cliff Lawn proves to be a timeless tradition in the Hill family.

I hope that the tradition of family and Christmas parties will continue. And I imagine that the spirits of my ancestors and Broderick himself will be joining in the fun! 
 

Ashley Caldwell Levi is a fourth-generation owner of the H.G. Hill Company. Since 1895, the H.G. Hill Company has built a legacy of service and stewardship in Middle Tennessee as owner of one of the largest privately held real estate portfolios in the Southeast.


Copyright 2015 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact bwenger@familybusinessmagazine.com.

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November/December 2015

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