O Little Town and Bethlehem: Keeping Christmas Local
One 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 area is deserted. Indeed, to put no finer point upon it, downtown is a desert 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 the local community in the local commerce that once beat there with the pulse 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 over 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 around 100 girls, when it was founded in small-town Ohio, AHG now has over 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 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 is high as is 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!