The greatest gifts can’t be wrapped or tucked beneath a Christmas tree. And they don’t cost a thing.

In fact, they’re priceless.

Christmas was my father’s favorite holiday. James A. Johnson Jr. lit our house in brightly colored lights and spent hours wrapping strings of white lights around each branch or our tree. He wore Santa hats and sang carols in department stores. He smiled during endless hours of bag-carrying for my mother while she shopped for one “perfect gift” after another and he spent hours building toys and wrapping the items she purchased. And then he spent days cooking all of his and our favorite appetizers, main dishes, sides, cookies and cakes from scratch.

It has been more than 14 years since he died, and I think of him often, but during the holidays, I smile remembering how much he enjoyed this time of year. He was a gift to me, and for that, I am (at least partially) thankful to New Iberia and Louisiana.

My father grew up in your smaller city, on the 600 block of Hacker Street. Every few years, we drove about 1,500 miles from Philadelphia to visit his parents, James A. Johnson Sr., known as Arnold (his middle name), and Kathryn Holleman Johnson. Going from Dad’s new hometown to his old one meant visiting another world to me. I grew up a city kid surrounded by cement, red brick row houses, and lots of asphalt. His world growing up had more trees and open spaces… and the largest mosquitoes I have ever seen. I grew up eating cheesesteaks, hoagies (that’s subs down there), and soft pretzels with mustard (Philadelphia treats). But thankfully, because of my dad, I also ate crawfish, gumbo, and fried catfish. And to this day, there isn’t anything I won’t put creole seasoning on.

I listen to Zydeco and “When the Saints Go Marching In” was one of the first songs I ever learned (and played on the piano). I love all things French and the first phrase I learned in that beautiful language was “Laissez les bon temps rouler!” I love the Fleur de Lis and alligators (from a distance, of course). And sometimes, I talk a little funny, at least to the Yankees up here. To this day, I can’t say o-i-l without sounding like I grew up in Louisiana. “I have to get my car’s awl changed,” I say. I’m a city girl with an occasional Southern twang, y’all.

My father is gone (as are my grandparents), but the things that New Iberia and Louisiana gave to them live on through me. And during each holiday season, I celebrate the memories we all made — here, there, and everywhere in between. Merry Christmas, New Iberia and Louisiana. Thanks for the best present that I ever received.

Tara Lynn Johnson is a freelance writer who grew up in Philadelphia and lives in its suburbs. If you knew her father or would just like to say hello, you may do so at tara@taralynnjohnson.com.

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