An Old Time Christmas

WAXAHACHIE, TX —  Beginning early in November, long before most people are even thinking about the holidays, the Parks and Rec crew is busy stringing lights, hanging signs, assembling decorations and doing it all with cheer and pride. “We feel sort of like Santa’s elves,” said department director, John David Smith, a former teacher who has been with the city since 1995. “It really is the high point of the year for us, even if we do have to be in a jolly state of mind longer than most folks!”

Getting a jump on the season for John and his employees means having everything in place by Thanksgiving, so that the backdrop for old Saint Nick is ready for the choirs, carolers, Dickensian costumed figures, carriage rides and lighted strolls that turn downtown Waxahachie into an annual oasis of holiday merriment. “When it’s all said and done, the crew enjoys getting it all prepared and seeing the fruits of their labor,” John said. “The men all have kids, and they like to show off their handiwork. It’s like: ‘Look what Daddy did.’ So setting up for Christmas is a big source of pride for us.”

While to new residents or tourists it may appear that Waxahachie’s Christmas festivities have been around for as long as the antique-looking decorations that festoon sidewalks and telephone poles, the city is only in its 10th year of coordinating downtown Yuletide events. Previously, the department handled lights and decorating for a community-wide Christmas carnival in Getzandaner Park, sponsored by local service organizations. “That’s in the past now,” John explained. “It became too expensive to maintain. One year, a storm came through and tore up our props and the next year, vandals destroyed everything beyond repair.”

The department abandoned the idea of Christmas in the Park, but in league with the city’s Downtown Merchants Association, it formulated the alternative of Christmas in the Square. “We just switched gears,” John said. “And it’s been a big hit. We think it’s better in many ways because it’s more centrally located, and it catches the eye of out-of-towners who might want to stop and join in the fun.”

John points out that the fun extends beyond the parameters of the square itself. Decorations and lights also go up on Martin Luther King, Main and Elm streets. He added that the area is a safer venue than before, being monitored regularly by the police, and the event is a boom for sales for downtown store owners and vendors.

Most residents appreciate the change, agreeing that downtown seasonal events are more convenient for revelers and more beneficial to local tourism, but John admits to receiving some complaints. “The feedback is positive for the most part,” he said, “although we do still hear from people who miss the park festivities and wish they could be reinstated.” John and his staff understand that people have great memories of that time, but there’s so much to recommend the current celebration – the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, kids’ activities, booths for shopping, eating or taking pictures with Santa – that they are confident the right decision was made .

“When the first brainstorming went on to change the location to downtown,” John stressed, “the merchants’ group and the city were sure this would evolve into something special, and it has.” The director also singles out for praise two dynamic colleagues who have contributed to the growth of the Christmas itinerary: Amy Hollywood, City of Waxahachie’s public relations manager, and Anita Williamson, the city’s downtown development director. “These ladies have really outdone themselves in the way of publicity and in enhancing the Christmas event calendar,” John enthused. The list of events is stellar indeed.

In addition to the tree lighting program and parade, which take place between the day after Thanksgiving and early December, Waxahachie hosts an outdoor skating rink (opposite City Hall), as well as the popular attraction, “Bethlehem Revisited,” a performance tour sponsored by Central Presbyterian Church that guides visitors through the story of Christ’s birth in a setting replicating Herod’s court, where crafts are demonstrated and sold.

As the range of activities is growing, so soon will the city’s cache of decorations. They hope to soon purchase new items for the downtown Christmas displays. The present Victorian lights and scenery are enough to please one return visitor to the Christmas on the Square events. Ellis County resident, Kim Douglas, said, “Waxahachie is never more beautiful than at Christmas.” She thinks the set pieces used by the Parks and Recreation department capture the charm of the city and its historic buildings and homes. “My family likes coming to the tree lighting ceremony,” she said. “We love the feel of the square and seeing all the decorations. It sets the right tone for the season for us.”

Linda Worth is another local who counts on Christmas on the Square for revving up her holiday spirit. “I used to go with my parents on the driving tour through Getzandaner Park, but now I take my kids to the town square, and they love it,” she said, noting that the atmosphere makes her feel like a kid again herself.

That’s Christmas music to the ears for John and his hard-working Parks and Rec staff. “We love knowing people are having a good time, and that they’ll spread the word,” he said. Steve Hamm, crew supervisor for the Parks department, oversees six employees who all enjoy making holiday gaiety happen for residents and visitors alike. “It’s exciting for us, and the initial work isn’t that hard,” John explained. “It just takes about a week and a half to put up all the lights and decorations. What’s hard sometimes is maintaining the decorations for the five weeks they’re up.”

John sees the collaboration between his men and the other city departments that contribute to Christmas on the Square as an example of the familial mood that prevails regardless of the season. “I am most impressed by our ability to pull together,” he said. “And the result is so wonderful, especially at Christmas. The square lends itself to decoration well. It’s pretty without a single ornament, but when it’s dressed and lit up at night, it’s really amazing.”

Getzandaner Park may hold fond memories for earlier generations, but the Courthouse Square is rivaling it for beauty and nostalgia. John said it best: “It’s a great place to make new memories.”

Written by Randy Bigham.