(CIRCA Magazine – A travel column from the Wake Forest Historical Museum)
Photograph by Steve Rankin
Anyone who’s experienced the magic of Christmas can verify that not even Santa’s toy bag could possibly outweigh the heavy symbolism attached to holiday greenery.
It’s no surprise that evergreens represent eternal life. But did you know ivy was traditionally thought to bring happiness and cheer? And boughs of holly go all the way back to the earliest Europeans, who believed that tiny, friendly forest fairies lived in holly bushes and needed shelter from the elements when winter storms struck.
But towering above all those sprigs and sprays and branches is the glorious Christmas tree. One particularly lovely legend claims Martin Luther, on a dark December walk near his home in Germany, passed a forest and noticed the stars—so important at Christ’s birth—hovering above the silhouetted evergreens. He decided to put a tree in his home and hang its branches with candles to glorify the Christ child, the Light of the World.
Over the past two hundred years, the Christmas tree has become one of winter’s most enduring traditions. And nowhere in the United States—or possibly the entire solar system—is that magic more joyously embraced than at the magnificent, inspirational holiday hotspot that appears on maps as McAdenville, North Carolina.
Also known as Christmas Town, USA, McAdenville is a little community with an enormous heart. It’s just west of Charlotte in Gaston County, about a three-hour drive from the Triangle area and easily accessible via Interstate 85. Each December, the town attracts more than half a million visitors eager to see the lights decorating a 1.3 mile stretch of the town’s living trees, a holiday spectacular that started small in 1956 when members of the McAdenville Men’s Club strung bulbs of red, white and green on just nine trees.
Obviously, nine was not enough.
Boosted by community enthusiasm, and with inspiration and financial support from local textile company Pharr Yarns, Christmas Town caught on—in a big way. The special tradition has now expanded into a virtual explosion of glimmering lights encompassing an astonishing 375 trees ranging in height from six feet to 90. A lake in the center of town reflects branches and sky–bulbs and stars. It’s a slice of holiday Americana straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting… if Rockwell had abandoned his traditional charcoals and oil paints in favor or luminous jolts of December radiance consisting primarily of high intensity wattage and charming red trim accents.
But the magic doesn’t happen overnight. The little town’s residents—about 700 people—jump into Christmas preparations in August, testing lights, untangling strands, and festooning branches to perfection. Yes, it takes more than three months to prepare the enchanting scenes that will make us gasp with delight as we drive through McAdenville in the cold, dark month of December. The town also boasts a display of Santa and his reindeer–nine feet tall and 70 feet long–as well as targeted multi-colored spot and flood lights and Christmas carols ringing from the heights of the Pharr Family YMCA tower and the steeple of the McAdenville Baptist Church.
Although this astonishing display has earned the townspeople international recognition (landing them alongside Times Square and Disney World on Yahoo’s 2011 list of Top 10 Places for Holiday Lights), you get a sense they don’t do this for the fame. In fact, as you pass the hundreds of wreaths that hang from lampposts, and the doors of homes decked in welcome, you realize this is a unique place with a special mission.
Like Martin Luther on that long ago day, this town wants only to celebrate the birth of Christ with clear and powerful radiance. And that’s a mission McAdenville fulfills to perfection.
(Christmas Town, USA’s official tree lighting ceremony is scheduled for December 2, 2013 at Legacy Park on Elm Street in downtown McAdenville. Festivities begin at 4:30pm and the lights go on approximately one hour later. Through December 26th, the trees will glow nightly from 5:30pm to 11pm on Saturdays and Sundays and 5:30pm to 9:30pm on all other days. For more information visit http://www.mcadenville-christmastown.com.)