On Tuesday, Nov. 15, Alexandria and Christmas lost one their most dedicated supporters and enthusiasts. Nita F. Hobbs Whitesel, 72, owner of The Christmas Attic and House In The Country, both in Old Town, succumbed to brain cancer at her Fairfax home surrounded by her loving family.
A native of Nashville, Tenn., Whitesel lived most of her life in the Washington Metropolitan Area, graduating from Western High School in the District of Columbia. She received her undergraduate degree from George Washington University and her Masters in Counseling from the University of Virginia.
More than 30 years ago, Whitesel opened Christmas Attic on the second floor of its present South Union Street location. "She loved Christmas and opened the store originally as a hobby," said her daughter Fay Hobbs-Carter of Del Ray who now, along with her sister Cheri Hennessey of Fairfax Station, operates the store. House In The Country, 107 N. Fairfax St., is managed by Betsy Husser.
"At one point we had four stores. Now there are three. The third is in Virginia Beach but the Norfolk store was closed when the redevelopment took place," Hobbs-Carter said.
"She had this vision to carry on the traditions of Christmas. She loved decorations from all around the world, particularly German, Swedish and Polish," she said. All of those, plus a great influence from Williamsburg can be found in both local stores.
Decorations outside The Christmas Attic are traditional Williamsburg with the half circle of apples over the doors. There is also a barrel of apples at the door for all customers who venture into this Christmas wonderland.
"My dad put up the train for the children to enjoy throughout the year," said Hobbs-Carter. The wide gauge train travels on a track suspended from the ceiling just inside the main entrance.
During the holidays the three stores employ approximately 100. But, they are not just employees. They are in effect an extended family. "My parents always embraced other people. This is very much of a family business that employs other families," she explained.
"We have started many young adults on their first job. It's almost like we've built our own family within the stores. They go away to college and get married and have children of their own. But, they all seem to come back to visit us, shop with us, and share with us," Hobbs-Carter reflected sitting in her office on the third level of The Christmas Attic.
During the memorial service for Nita held at Christ United Methodist Church in Fairfax Station on Nov. 21, those attending were asked to stand if they had ever worked at one of Nita's shops. About one third of the large congregation came to their feet, according to her daughter.
NITA WAS ALSO NICKNAMED the "Snow Queen." That moniker came from Charlotte Hall, vice president, Potomac River Boat Company. "She was my first best friend when I came to Old Town," Hall recalled.
"She was the light of my life. When she walked into a room there was a presence about her," Hall said.
"The holidays are a magical time and she was a magical person. She was always so supportive of people working to help the community. She loved this community as much as her family. She was a mentor of newcomers. And she always strived for Alexandria to be a better place," Hall said.
That was obvious this past Friday night when Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille dedicated the lighting of the City Christmas Tree to Nita Whitesel. That lighted symbol of the Christmas season stands as a tribute to Alexandria's "Snow Queen."
The business will not only continue but also continue to grow, according to her daughter. "My sister and I have grown along with the business. We are the second generation and working on the third," said Hobbs-Carter.
"Tradition is very important to us. Mom always said she would work until the day she died. That nearly came true," she said. Her diagnosis occurred near the end of this past summer.
In addition to her two daughters, Nita is survived by her husband Thomas K. Whitesel Jr., of Fairfax; her sister Linda Dalch Jones, of Williamsburg and Richmond; Tom's children, Elizabeth Parrott of Asheville, N.C. and Laura Killian of Raleigh, N.C.; and Thomas Whitesel of Minneapolis, Minn.; 11 grandchildren and two nieces.
Memorial contributions can be made in her name to Capital Hospice, 6565 Arlington Boulevard, Suite 500, Falls Church, VA, 22042.