Mint men are Christmas tradition for Gentry

December 14, 2004|EMILY TOADVINE

Nancy Gentry already has stockpiled the Lifesavers and yarn as she prepares for her annual Christmas tradition of making mint men. Now, the grandmother of two just has to find time to make them as her days are spent taking care of her 3-year-old grandson, Carter Story and his 6-month-old sister, Anna Keith.

The men of red and green yarn with a roll of Lifesavers as a body have hung on many trees in Danville. Gentry, who lives in Forkland, gave them to her third-grade pupils at Jennie Rogers Elementary School from 1972 until her retirement in 1995. During those years, Gentry's mother in Alabama did all the work.

Gentry and her mom had seen them at a craft fair in Birmingham when her son, Tip, now 33, was a newborn. The last year that Gentry taught, her mother had died and she had to make her own mint men.


"I was sorry I hadn't been more appreciative when I found out how hard they were to do."

Gentry got the hang of making the men, though, and although she doesn't have to produce enough for a whole class, she continues to pass them out.

"When we have new, special people in our lives, they would get one each, like new babies or new friends."

This year, she has about six orders for her daughter, Kristen Story, who plans to give them to friends' babies.

Gentry has the instructions for making the yarn dolls written on pieces of cardboard. Following the ink instructions on the cardboard, she gives each color of yarn 16 wraps for the legs and then the arms.

"I love these because that's my mother's and my daddy's handwriting," she says.

Her grandson, Carter, was willing to help glue sequin eyes on the round, Styrofoam heads. Carter was hankering for a Lifesaver and Gentry knows that they are irresistible.

During the years that she gave them to her class, some of the children took them home intact, but others were left with only the pieces of yarn.

"Some children ate them before they left the classroom that day."

For those who partook of the mints, Gentry says the thread that holds the mints inside can be cut and used to tie the arms and legs together, creating a short, squatty mint man.

Occasionally, she meets a former student who mentions the treat.

"Sometimes, they say, "Oh, I still put my mint man on the tree.'"

Nativity sets for babies is another tradition

In addition to her homemade ornaments, Gentry also has a Christmas tradition of buying nativity sets for babies. She prefers the type made of olive wood from the Holy Land.

"They're real rough," she says.

After initially receiving the Christ child, the children get a new piece each year. For instance, 3-year-old Carter gets Joseph this year.

Other recipients of Gentry's Christmas gifts have been Centre College students who attended The Presbyterian Church of Danville. Over the years, Gentry played host to 22 students. Now, she tries to recognize the birth of their children with mint men.

"I just found out one of them had a baby. She called me and the baby is 10 days old."

Gentry's first host student has a 14-year-old and that child has completed a nativity set. Mint men will be sent to former students with babies who live in Virginia, Colorado, New Jersey, Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati.

Gentry remembers that her mother had her own Christmas tradition. It involved putting some ornaments on the tree that Gentry considered tacky.

"They were the most ugly red and green balls, and every year she put them on the tree."

As an adult, Gentry questioned her mother about why she used them to decorate, and she heard a touching story. Her parents had married during World War II and had the ornaments their first year of marriage.

"You couldn't get glass balls because of the war," Gentry says. "They were so precious to her because that's when they were from."

Gentry says she plans to keep making her mint men and awarding her nativity sets piece by piece as celebrations of lives that touch hers.

"There are always babies," she says.

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