Have Yourself a Holly Dolly Christmas

This superstar knows how to spin a little holiday magic.

You probably know Dolly Parton does not have children of her own. Therefore—and she would probably agree—we all are her children. That’s pretty much where the country-singer-turned-American-icon has ended up at the age of 76: a maternal, unifying force.

Think about it. She’s perhaps the one darn thing we can all agree on today. So, deep into the holiday season, whether you’re red, blue, or purple, whether or not you write to Santa Claus or pray to a, well, more northerly being, and even if you’ve never been to Dollywood, chances are you believe in Dolly Parton. 

It’s upon that premise we begin this Christmas story. 

Dolly—we all call her by her first name and she knows this—has her own firmly held beliefs. Say, about Christmas decorations. She is unwavering on when they shall go up. “I start the day after Thanksgiving,” she says. “Christmas lights are turned on. The wreaths go up. I have a little chapel on my property; I put a cross on top of that.” The first ornament on her tree? (To be clear, there are many trees.) “A little patchwork star Momma made for us when I was little.” 

Gracefully curled into a chair in her Nashville studio like an Abyssinian cat (albeit one wearing sparkly pants and gold epaulets), Dolly offers me an extremely sweet and spicy hot tea, which allegedly contains no sugar. The tea was given to her by Ellen DeGeneres. “Momma always made Christmas great even though we didn’t have the money,” she says, cuddling her mug.

 Dolly Parton for Better Homes & Gardens stepping out of a life-size green gift box with metallic green bow.

Art Streiber

That right there—her authentic juxtaposition of fame and family, access and earnestness, high and low—might be why Dolly Parton is Dolly today. Which is to say, she’s one of the most successful entertainers of all time, with 26 number-one hits, more than 100 million records sold, and a recent induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. And yet she nimbly, repeatedly pivots well outside her lane, from Dolly-branded cake mixes to Christian albums to James Patterson cowritten novels to thumping dance remixes. It’s also why, with a sleigh-full of new holiday projects, she might be the new queen of Christmas. 

“Now, don’t you say that! I’m not going to compete with Mariah,” Dolly says, nearly genuflecting to the true—and trademarked—Queen of Christmas, Mariah Carey. “I love her. You think of Christmas, you think of Mariah. I’m happy to be second in line to her.”

Video placeholder image

You know Dolly’s story. The fourth of 12 children, Dolly was raised in the Smoky Mountains by a father who worked two or more jobs (and couldn’t read) and a mother who filled the house with love and Southern folklore (and could sing). A performer by the age of 10, Dolly had her first studio album in 1967. She’s had 51 more since, along with hit movies, best-selling books, and a theme park. And now, in addition to the cake mixes with Duncan Hines, there’s a dog clothing line (Doggy Parton), a re-release of her Christmas album, A Holly Dolly Christmas (with four additional new songs, including a duet with goddaughter Miley Cyrus), and a new holiday movie, Dolly Parton’s Mountain Magic Christmas. Miley’s dad, Billy Ray, costars along with Jimmy Fallon. “Me and Jimmy, we have a great chemistry,” Dolly says, mentioning when they covered Mariah’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” “We both feel it, and we love it.”

If you think she works a lot at this time of year, you’re right. “The holidays make me very creative, ’cause I’m happy. And I try to remember, and I draw from that, from that spirit of Christmas. That Christ spirit. Even if you don’t believe in Jesus, the spirit is really about giving and tolerance, understanding and acceptance.” 

 Dolly Parton for Better Homes & Gardens holding a gift and standing next to a pile of gifts wrapped in shades of green and gold

Art Streiber

Dolly’s legendary, nearly apocryphal origin story is never far from her at any time. But it comes rushing back in full relief every December. She summons it in her song, “A Smoky Mountain Christmas” in the line: With nothing much that money buys, but everything worthwhile in life.

“That’s how we felt back then,” she says. She pauses and seems to teleport herself back to the mid-’50s to Locust Ridge in east Tennessee. “I remember the foods we used to cook, and the stories we used to tell, and the songs we used to sing. Momma would always sing all the great ones: ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ ‘Silent Night,’ and ‘Go Tell It on the Mountain.’”

Her mother, she says, possessed a powerful form of, let’s call it, “holiday magic.” “I always say Momma could tell you anything and make you believe it. She had to make Christmas good for all of us,” Dolly says. “She didn’t have any money to do it any other way. You know, we really didn’t know we were poor. I always make a joke, ‘We didn’t know we was poor ’til some smart-ass up and told us.’”

Dolly continues: “Momma was creative, and she understood that she had to tell the right stories. And she had to make it exciting. She could cook anything, and it would taste good, because she would talk about the magic she put in it. She could get you there. Like, she mentally got you there. It was more than just the story of Jesus being born. You could see those kings. You could see that star. You could smell that donkey.”

Dolly Parton for Better Homes & Gardens standing next to a pile of gifts wrapped in shades of green and gold

Art Streiber

Dolly’s younger sister, Rachel George-Parton, agrees. “Momma always made Christmas fun when we were growing up,” Rachel says. “Singing all the Christmas songs, hearing the Christmas story, and eatin’ Momma’s good food.”

Momma, Dolly says, would decorate their tree with colored paper, rags, foil-covered eggs, and popcorn. “We didn’t even have electricity for lights on the tree. We had popcorn garland,” she says. “That’s one of the things I have to have today. I never got over being country.” 

Video placeholder image

Dolly insists that every room in her house has to have a Christmas tree in it. They stay up until her birthday on January 19 (“except the outside ones people see; I’m not that tacky”). “I always want a live tree because Daddy would take us to chop a tree down,” she says. “He’d look at all the trees and make us pick out the perfect one. And we’d all want to hold the axe, but he wouldn’t let us because we’d have probably chopped each other to pieces.”

“Dolly is a lot like Momma,” Rachel tells me. “She still makes Christmas fun for all of us older ones and our young ones as well.” 

Dolly Parton for Better Homes & Gardens quote from Rachel George Parton

There used to be a Christmas party in Beverly Hills. The legendary paparazzo-flash-at-the-entrance glam affair was thrown by Sandy Gallin, a preeminent agent and manager of stars, including Nicole Kidman, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Renée Zellweger, Lily Tomlin, and, yes, Dolly. His Tudor-style home in Benedict Canyon would be transformed into a very chic North Pole, with guests just as famous (or even more so) than Gallin’s own clients. “Every Christmas I think of Sandy and his party,” Dolly says. Gallin, who died five years ago, might have helped her make a fortune—they started a production company together and were even roommates for a time—but he also taught her how to throw a proper Christmas party. 

“He threw the best parties of anybody at any time, ever. Certainly at Christmas.” Gallin was Jewish, Dolly says, “but he loved all the Christmas songs. He loved the trees. He loved everything about Christmas.” He always had that one essential element at a party: a little surprise. “One year there was a full church choir on the staircase when you walked in. Everybody would jump in and sing along. Oh, it was amazing.”

Dolly often served as cohost. “He was gay and he didn’t have a partner, and so I was always like his partner. We would greet all the people—everybody, every celebrity. I mean every person in Hollywood, they’d all come.” Madonna, Olivia Newton-John, Shirley MacLaine, the cast of Dynasty, the Beastie Boys. “Or they’d ask, ‘What do I have to do to get into Sandy Gallin’s party?’ Still some of the best times I’ve ever had in my life.”

Now, on the night before Christmas at Dolly’s, her friends and family will be over. “I make a great punch. Sometimes it’s spiced,” Dolly says with a snicker. (She means booze. Her punch recipe involves champagne and fruit.) Christmas music is playing (the standards). Christmas movies are playing (she prefers the Hallmark Channel ones). And the food is plentiful—usually takeout Chinese or lasagna, but sometimes she cooks. “The family loves my chicken and dumplings,” she says. “Everyone always wants my recipe. But I’m not even gonna leave it behind when I’m gone. I want them to always say, ‘This doesn’t taste the same. I miss Dolly’s.’ ” 

Dolly Parton for Better Homes & Gardens wearing a dark green velvet dress standing in front of a green marbled wall

Art Streiber

At some point that night, Santa will make an appearance. Dolly has an elevator in her house, and in the basement the elevator door is decorated like a chimney. “It’s got the flames and everything,” she says. “I get in my Santa suit, and I got my Santa bags with their presents in it. And I come down the ‘chimney.’ ” They call her Granny Claus. 

The next day, when Dolly and her husband of more than 50 years, Carl Dean, rise, she’ll make him red and green pancakes. “With food coloring,” she says, giggling. Then they’ll exchange their gifts. Kitchen stuff for her, tool stuff for him. Chocolate-covered cherries (something her father gave her mother) are always exchanged. Carl Dean has been known to write her poems or sing her a song on Christmas Day. “He has a beautiful voice,” she says.

The way Dolly explains it, some of her most beloved Christmas presents haven’t been gifts. They’ve been lessons. Like the time her brothers and sisters saved money so her father could give her mother a wedding band. Or when she didn’t get a lifelike doll “that really peed” and instead got a new baby brother. (“Trust me, this one pees too,” her father promised her.) And one big lesson she revisits every December, reaffirms even, is her belief in Santa Claus. 

“There's a part of me that really does want to always believe in Santa Claus. But when we were kids, we didn't get that much. I remember one time, we said, ‘We didn't see Santa Claus.’ We'd waited for him. Daddy said, ‘Oh, hell. We live so far back in these mountains, he can't find us back here. I'm sure he'd have a load of stuff if he'd have known where to bring them.’” She laughs. “But I believe there's always hope. That’s what I’ve learned. You can always be given hope. Dreams.”

Dolly leans forward, unspooling her legs. “And if he don't show up, you just figure, like Daddy said, it’s because we live so far back and we didn't have no lights.”

“I do believe,” she says, her tone turning serious. She looks me square in the eyes, and her soft, whispery vibrato fills the room.

I believe in Santa Claus,

and I’ll tell you why I do

’Cause I believe that dreams and plans 

and wishes can come true. 

Video placeholder image

Dolly's Holiday Essentials

We each have our holiday traditions. These are a few of the ways Dolly celebrates in her home.

The Drink

Eggnog, or punch with champagne and fruit. “A little Christmas spirit. And then we have the regular punch for the kids.”

The Sparkle

“I love tinsel. I’m tacky. I don’t try to be fancy, I just try to do what makes me happy.”

The Tree

“I do a few artificial trees, because I have a tree in every room. But my main tree is always a real tree. And yes, I do Christmas tree skirts. I told you, I’m tacky and I don’t care. I think I’m doing alright!”

The Timeline

“You know, we didn’t even have the Halloween decorations up, and people were decorating for Christmas. Doesn’t bother me though, I love Christmas.”

The Ugly Sweaters

“I got a whole bunch of Christmas sweaters that I wear. A couple of them are as ugly as I could get ’em—on purpose.”

The Wrapping Paper

“I like to use newspaper because it reminds me of being back home. How we used the comics, when they were in color. And I make my own bows sometimes too.”

The Professionals

“I have people who help me with my decorations. But I like doing my tree myself.”

The Controversy

“Yeah, for years, I didn’t care that much for fruitcake. But my husband always loved it. I always get him one.”

The Letter

“I like to write a letter to Santa Claus. I pretend like it’s really a letter to God.”

The Rules

“I don’t follow nobody’s rules. I just do what I feel right about in my heart!”

BHG December 2022 Issue

Better Homes & Gardens


Talent: Dolly Parton

Text By: Jason Sheeler

Photos By: Art Streiber

Produced By: Jessica Thomas

Prop Stylist: Anthony A. Altomare

Wardrobe Designer: Steve Summers

Hair Stylist: Cheryl Riddle

Location: Noz Entertainment

Video Editing: Wes Films

Booking: Talent Connect Group

Was this page helpful?

Related Articles