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One of the most discouraging things about small-town America is the way that corporate gigantism has ripped its heart out. What is missing is the neighbourly heart of local community and local commerce that once beat there, and the pulsing of family life…

christmas-localOne of the most discouraging things about small-town America is the way that corporate gigantism has ripped its heart out. This is made all too painfully evident when I drive on the back roads to Charlotte from my home in South Carolina, which is my preferred route when time permits. Taking these country roads, I pass through several small towns that have become like the ghost towns of the legendary west. People still live there, in an impoverished state, but the downtown areas are deserted. Indeed, to put no finer point upon it, the downtowns are deserts devoid of all commercial activity. One sees old buildings, dignified even in their dilapidated state, empty and neglected, standing like tombstones commemorating the passing of a healthier culture. What is missing is the neighbourly heart of local community and local commerce that once beat there, and the pulsing of family life.

Such gloomy thoughts seem out of place as we approach Christmas, which, as the singer Andy Williams reminds us, is “the most wonderful time of the year.” Mindful of this, and not wishing to be a veritable Scrooge in the midst of the seasonal cheer, or, even worse, a doom-monger who, like the White Witch of Narnia, declares that it is “always winter but never Christmas,” I am happy to proclaim that Christ is very much alive in the heart of small-town America and that He is breathing life back into downtown. This is never clearer than at Christmas when the little town in which I live beats as one with the little town of Bethlehem.

This past weekend, with the tree we had just purchased perched on the roof of the car, we parked outside the family-owned country store on Main Street, from which we buy the feed for our chickens and ducks and the raw milk for ourselves, the latter of which is delivered weekly to the store from a local dairy. (South Carolina, unlike most states, has not declared raw milk illegal.) The store itself was closed, its being Sunday, but we’d parked there in order to see the Christmas parade. Shivering in the chill breeze, we were warmed by the spectacle passing before us. For more than an hour, half of the population passed in procession before us while the other half lined the streets to watch. Local businesses passed by, one after the other, employees tossing candy to the children while others waved and greeted the onlookers with the seasonal greeting of “Merry Christmas!” (and ne’er a “happy holidays” to be heard!).

To my delight, I noted several troops of American Heritage Girls, which was founded twenty years ago as a Christian alternative to the Girl Scouts after the latter had dropped God from their promise and had banned prayer. Beginning with only some 100 girls, when it was founded in small-town Ohio, AHG now has more than 30,000 members around the United States. Clearly, if the evidence of my local Christmas parade is anything to go by, it has now effectively eclipsed the Godless Girl Scouts, at least here in the buckle of the Bible-Belt.

And speaking of the Bible-Belt, the parade was also blessed with the presence of many local churches, mostly Baptists, whose members greeted those lining the streets with the ubiquitous “Merry Christmas,” handing out flyers giving details of their respective Christmas services, along with the equally ubiquitous candy. The presence of my Protestant brethren bearing public witness to Christ as “the reason for the season” warmed the cockles of my Catholic heart!

Another feature of the season is the annual Christmas concert, performed in the local theatre by the small town’s Chorale. Subscribing to G.K. Chesterton’s adage that if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly, I first attended this annual festive event with a somewhat supercilious fear that the quality of the performance would be woeful. I was pleasantly surprised. The quality of musicianship was high as was the selection of music. The whole of the first half of this year’s concert was a performance of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols, a cantata of eleven movements for three-part treble chorus, solo voices, and harp. The text consists of a series of mediaeval English poems, longtime favourites of mine, sung in the splendor of Chaucerian Middle English with a smattering of Latin.

After the intermission we moved into the twentieth century with a string of popular seasonal classics: It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas, Deck the Hall with Boughs of Holly, the Carol of the Bells, The Christmas Song (“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”) and a rousing rendition of Joy to the World. The climax, predictably and commendably enough, was a performance of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Who could ask for more?

And then, this year and in previous years, there are the local theatrical productions of A Christmas Carol, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Christmas would not be Christmas without the Christmas shopping, of course, but even here I try to keep it local. I make my purchases, wherever possible, from local small stores, such as the aforementioned country store and those other new stores which are beginning to reappear on Main Street, and I try to buy locally-produced gifts. The country store, for example, is well-stocked with local honey, or locally-made cooking sauces, pickles, chutneys and chow-chow, as well as local cook-books and books of local history. Speaking of books, I try to buy books from small publishers, and I try to buy them directly from the publishers or from local bookstores, resisting (at least most of the time) the allure of the Almighty Amazon. The food we purchase for our Christmas feast will be local produce and, usually, local meat, including, when we have turkey, birds raised on a farm around the corner from where we live. The beer I drink will be locally-craft-produced ale and, should I desire something stronger, the moonshine I imbibe will be made in the local distillery.

And lest anyone should think that my way of doing Christmas shopping a little odd or eccentric, I would simply point out that strong local communities are only possible when there’s a strong local economy. If I want the family-owned businesses to return to Main Street, resurrecting the ghost towns, I need to spend my money in those stores when they begin to reappear. And if this means that I have less to spend on the mass-produced junk from China on sale in Walmart, so much the better!

And on that jolly note, I raise a glass of locally-crafted ale and wish you all a truly Merrie Christmas!

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4 replies to this post
  1. Only two questions, good Sir: where do you live and how does one get there? From the description, I greatly fear the location is near Brigadoon.

    More seriously, I well recall growing up in such places. The father of a high school classmate owned the feed store downtown, “on the Square”. And one could go into any store and know the folks working there, and they you and all your ancestors. When I made a visit Home in 1995, the very same lady was behind the counter at the Ben Franklin (the Dime Store) who was there in 1955. And the town library still had my old library card with its stamped record of books checked out. I understand the local churches (mostly Baptist and Methodist and offshoots) still have the Christmas Cantata, and have even invited the local (formerly hated) Catholics to participate. Even today, I could go in anywhere in that town, and although now a stranger (having lived 1500 miles away for over 40 years), would but have to declare my father and brother to be instantly accepted as a “native”.

    I tell these things to my grandchildren, and they marvel that such a vanished civilization ever existed.

    • David, it sounds like we are from the same hometown! Except our “dime store” was Lay’s. Like you, all I have to do when visiting is say who my mother/father/aunt/uncle/ was to be instantly known! Sure do miss Christmas back then in the 1950s.

  2. Oh wow so beautiful! Reminds me of my small town I grew up in Connecticut. Dime store was my favorite…brought me warm nostalgic feelings. Sad to see the ghost towns and pray we can see the small family stores coming back. I believe firmly in supporting our small business owners. Thank you for sharing this…truly warmed my heart. God bless you

  3. I grew up in NYC and remember that Norman Rockwell kind of Christmas we also had, even in the big city. We lived in a Queens neighborhood that was half Catholic, half Jewish with a couple of Lutheran and Seventh Day Adventist families for diversity. We all went to the Catholic school and everyone else went to the public school which we called the Jewish school. Despite the religious differences, we were all friends and shared good sentiments for each others holidays.

    Then we got into this twisted era of diversity and inclusion where anyone disagreeing with your opinion is ripped to shreds and called a racist and misogynist fascist. Over the last decade or two as the anti-Christian sentiments in the US continued to grow, wishing someone a Merry Christmas came to be considered a hostile act. Somewhere along the line, I decided not to be intimidated and I stopped saying “Happy Holidays” to everyone I was not certain was Christian. Since then I always wish a Merry Christmas and add Happy Hanukkah to people I know are Jews.

    One guy I wished Merry Christmas responded that he was so happy to hear me say that. He felt the same sense of disapproval that I did. This year was different however. People were wishing Merry Christmas all over and there were no negative feelings at all. It was like an enormous block was gone. I think the Trump election was part of the reason. Looking past the vile smearing campaign temper tantrum that the PC media and the leftist democrats have lashed out at him, I think he could be a great president. The leftists of course have already called him the worst president in US history, before he has taken office.

    It felt good to say Merry Christmas and even better that people were wishing it to me.

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