By Alex B Ramsey

Every Christmas Eve for 40 years or more, a tipsy garden side gate opened onto a yuletide celebration whose glow could brighten any holiday Grinch. The gate belonged to an ancient brown brick building, its façade overgrown with brambles and brush. For those in the know, the drab exterior made the contrast of stepping into the eclectic party all the more appealing.

Known as Fezziwig’s Christmas Eve, the host was the late, iconic artist and East Dallas visionary John Ashley Bellamy. He died peacefully, surrounded by his former wife and the gentle strums of guitar music played by one of his three sons, all of whom were with him. Wherever Ashley was, creativity, art and kindness flourished.

Ashley’s Haskell Avenue home, the site of Fezziwig’s, was a converted East Dallas Methodist church turned artist’s warren. Undistinguished to the point of being almost invisible, you probably careened past, never realizing the treasures tucked inside those old bones.

As was true for many, Ashley was my friend, a bright star in the neighborhood where our families lived near one another growing up. Oddly, his last hours came as I was creating my own annual Christmas card greeting to him. As I wrote, I felt grumpy about the virus forcing yet another event to be postponed. I did not want to wait yet another year and pined for its evergreen vibe, part Hogwarts, part music festival, part Christmas glory, along with the best people-watching ever. I was unaware of how ill he had become.

Named after a jovial character from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the namesake party personified Ashley’s upbeat approach to life. On Dec. 24, from mid-afternoon to the wee hours of the morning, Fezziwig’s gate was open to guests. Fur-wrapped matrons from Preston Road mansions filed in the early afternoon hours, their scions more likely to show up in the early morning hours of Christmas Day. In between those regulars, guests from every corner of Dallas and walk of life gingerly arrived. By the time it was over, maybe a thousand, maybe more, passed the rickety garden gate.

The smells and crackles of burning wood greeted guests from two open hearths once inside. Through the frosty air, the thuds and beats of Celtic, Native American and other drumming-circle instruments welcomed everyone. Up a flight of wobbly stairs, in the former sanctuary, standing out with his trademark shoulder-length hair, the lanky Ashley led robust choruses of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and other carols.

Local musicians provided piano accompaniment to the familiar songs. A giant, live fir tree dependably showered guests with rays of multicolored Christmas lights. Gingerbread houses and all manner of treats topped a rectory-sized table. Attire was anything goes. Guests arrived in elegant velvets or utilitarian puff vests. Hand-crafted hats of Christmas tinsel, Elizabethan gowns and costumes sparkling with sequins brought more smiles and gaiety.

But from the outside, you’d never know what a special place was inside. Besides the Fezziwig festivities, being there was an opportunity to view Ashley’s inventive, elegant, sometimes provocative, art slathered all over the walls.

Newcomers learned of the scores of down-and-out or up-and-coming artists Ashley mentored. You’d sense the spirit of a diverse community, of how and why Ashley fought so hard for what was authentic and real in East Dallas, and in all of us.

I will miss Fezziwig’s and sharing this Christmastime experience with my friends and family. Fortunately, for the first time last year, my two young grandchildren joined me and their parents at Fezziwig’s. They swayed to the drumbeats, sang “Silent Night” and marveled at the tree.

We will miss Ashley Bellamy and do well to remember what he stood for. I had no sense 2019 would be our last gathering. Eventually, everyone goes home, and all parties come to a close.

Alex B Ramsey is a longtime Dallas resident, an adjunct professor with SMU’s Cox School of Business, and president of All Aboard Travel.