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Lillie Mae Wiggins, right, celebrates her 97th birthday today. With her are daughter Geneva Gray and grandson Benjamin Burt, one of 17 preachers in the family.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Lillie Mae Wiggins, right, celebrates her 97th birthday today. With her are daughter Geneva Gray and grandson Benjamin Burt, one of 17 preachers in the family.

1 day, 2 presents
For Decatur’s Lillie Mae Wiggins, 97, Christmas Day means birthday cake

By Deangelo McDaniel· 340-2469

If you are a descendant of Lillie Mae Wiggins, you hear two things from birth.

Bring her a Christmas present Dec. 25. And, bring her a birthday present Dec. 25.

“I’m 41, and I have known this since I was about 10,” said Wiggins’ grandson, Benjamin Burt of Decatur.

Wiggins, the daughter of a Baptist preacher and granddaughter of former slaves, celebrates her 97th birthday today.

She was born Dec. 25, 1909. And, for as long as she can remember, her birthday didn’t get lost in the Christmas celebration.

“We didn’t have a lot growing up, but my parents always made sure I had something for Christmas and my birthday,” Wiggins recalled.

To make sure her children and grandchildren don’t forget, she usually reminds them during the family gathering at Thanksgiving.

“Mama is not going to let you forget,” said her daughter, Geneva Gray of Decatur. “You better not show up here without a birthday and Christmas present.”

So, as the family gathers today in the 400 block of Sixth Avenue Northwest, Wiggins’ 10 children, 40 grandchildren, 61 great-grandchildren and 17-great-great-grandchilden know to bring her two presents.

‘Got us trained’

She’s got us trained,” Gray said.

Yes, the presents are nice. But what Wiggins enjoys most is her family. That’s why she gets up early and tries to cook breakfast and Christmas dinner for the almost 100 family members who come to celebrate.

“We have to run her out of the kitchen,” Gray said.

By now, Wiggins has two of just about every household appliance made. So, what do family members buy for her?

“We usually just give her money because she loves to count it,” Burt said.

Added Gray with a smile: “If the card is empty, she just puts it on the table.”

If you have the idea that Christmas in the Wiggins’ household is about presents, you’re wrong.

17 preachers in family

The family has 17 preachers, including a son, Allen Wiggins Jr. Family members understand absolutely that Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ.

The fact that the family matriarch has a birthday the same day is a bonus.

Wiggins was born near New Hope, the only child to Green and Eliza Moore Fennell. Her father preached and farmed and her mother was a homemaker.

Green Fennell was originally from Morgan County so when Wiggins was young, he moved the family to Nebo, a small community near the Tennessee River between Decatur and Trinity.

When Wiggins was a teenager, the Fennell family moved to Finley Island in the middle of the Tennessee River.

“Daddy had mules and cows and he made a crop on the island,” Wiggins recalled.

She doesn’t remember celebrating Christmas on the island, but she has clear memories of rising waters forcing adults to take farm animals to the top of the levies. She rode a ferry off the island and lived with relatives during the week so she could attend the Bell Church School.

On the weekend, it was back to the island, where Wiggins helped her parents with farm duties.

The only time Wiggins remembers talking back to her father was when she told him she was not moving back to the island.

“We lived over there two years and that was enough,” she said. “When daddy left the island, I told him I wasn’t going back.”

The Fennells settled on a small farm near the existing Solutia site and Wiggins remembers walking to Lakeside School, the site of Leon Sheffield Elementary.

“I was never late,” she said proudly.

She married the late Allen Wiggins on May 3, 1930. This union produced 13 children. Eight of the surviving children reside in Decatur.

In 1994, daughter Gloria Dean Wilkerson started the Lillie Mae Wiggins Birthday Family Reunion.

“We’ve had it every year since then, except for one year when my brother died,” Gray said.

The family held the annual reunion Sunday at Bell Primitive Baptist Church, where Wiggins attends.

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