New York has its Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Washington loves to decorate the National Tree. For my money, however, the best place to celebrate Christmas is in a small town.
Maybe that’s because I spent my first 25 Christmases in a small town, but I think it’s more because small-town people like to celebrate together. They want to create events that bring the whole town together, and if a few (hundred or thousand) outsiders come, too—well, the more the merrier. Christmas will always involve shopping, and cities and towns alike will always try to outdo each other in creating the ultimate holiday shopping experience. Yet, a small-town Christmas is not primarily about shopping. It’s about a feeling, a sense of sharing and bringing people together to join in the joy of the season.
My favorite memory of a Christmas celebration in my hometown happened when I was in the eighth grade. The night was cold and dark, probably at least a week before Christmas because school hadn’t let out for the holidays yet. Our tiny Main Street, which stretched for only a few small blocks (not much more than a mile), was bright with Christmas lights and happy faces. The street was closed to cars for a few hours that night, allowing cheerful revelers to fill the two traffic lanes except for a roped-off space beneath a street light. We waited until we were all pretty chilly, and then our high school glee club, dressed in choir robes, filed into the vacant space and began to sing. They weren’t the Mormon Tabernacle Choir by any means, but their clear, sweet voices sounded like angels that night. The Christmas carols rose and swirled in the cold air, bringing us all closer together. Before long we were all singing.
I don’t remember if the stores on Main Street were open that night. They may have been, but that wasn’t the point. The point was the townspeople gathering together with a choir that belonged to all of us to celebrate the season.
My second favorite small-town Christmas memory also involved Christmas carols. (Do you see a pattern here?) Again, I was about 12 or 13, when a group of my friends gathered the kids who lived on our street to go from house to house singing carols to the neighbors. Christmas caroling! Does anybody do that anymore? We did it a lot back then. Once when I was only about nine, my sister and a friend and I went caroling to a few houses in our neighborhood. We happened to live not far from the editor of the town’s newspaper, so we made sure we went to his house, figuring we would probably get our picture in the paper. And we did.
A week or so ago, I saw a movie called Nothing Like the Holidays. I found it on Netflix, which is a good place to hunt for old holiday movies. In this movie I learned a new twist on Christmas caroling. The family went from house to house, and when they finished singing, the people who lived there joined them to go to the next house. By the time they got to the last house, the street was filled with people. It was a great way to bring the neighbors together.
Maybe nobody goes Christmas caroling anymore or gathers on Main Street to sing carols together, but I have read about some inviting small-town celebrations going on now. In Skaneateles, New York, a quaint little village surrounding a picturesque lake, Dickensian characters, from Tiny Tim to the Ghost of Christmas Past, stroll through the streets, chatting with townspeople and visitors, caroling, and riding in horse-drawn carriages. If you don’t have your own Victorian costume, you can borrow one while you’re there. I’ve been to Skaneateles in the summer, when it’s perfectly charming, but I’m definitely going to try to go back during Christmas.
Solvang, California, offers Julefest, which includes a parade of dancers, vintage cars, and horse-drawn carriages, plus a live nativity pageant. Woodstock, Vermont, provides Wassail Weekend with sleigh rides, a holiday craft fair, and performances by local theater and singing troops as they parade through town.
The most alluring idea I found for a current small-town Christmas celebration comes from my native North Carolina. McAdenville, with fewer than 700 permanent residents, is home to a Yule Log Parade that winds through downtown. Imagine a crowd of children scrambling to get a hand on the rope attached to a sled bearing the log, while townspeople and visitors follow behind. When they reach the park that is their destination, helpers place the log in a huge outdoor fireplace and ignite it. Once the fire is roaring, the air fills with Christmas music provided by students from area schools and local church choirs.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Come to think of it, that’s not so different from the gathering on Main Street in my little town so long ago. And we could have used a little warmth from the fire.