Town's celebration steps back in time

December 15, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - Time flew backwards Saturday in Harpers Ferry as the National Park Service demonstrated to visitors how residents of another era celebrated the holidays during its yearly "Keeping Christmas" celebration.

Taking their cues from Charles Dickens, park workers and volunteers dressed in 19th-century garb gave patrons a sample of the music, dance and holiday customs that would have been familiar to Harpers Ferry residents between 1859 and 1864.

"We want to show the visitors what Christmas was really like," coordinator Melinda Day said. "We're trying to give them glimpses of past Christmases using the Dickens theme."


Some visitors, she said, were a little surprised by the differences. Outdoor greenery displays, for example, were modest.

"Greenery was cherished," Day said. "And the good, smelly greenery was meant for indoors."

Stores usually were open Christmas Day, she said.

"It wasn't the same holiday it is today."

No Christmas celebration would be complete without Santa Claus, and the jolly old elf - circa 1864 - made an appearance on Shenandoah Street. This Santa, however, wore a blue coat.

"I'm a soldier Santa," said volunteer Walt de Groot, who traveled from his home in Arlington, Va., for the festivities. This soldier had trimmed his uniform coat with a white border for Santa "and stars for his country," de Groot said.

And had he been making a list?

"I get a lot of requests, but all I have to give is a hug - or a handshake for the men. That's all a soldier had," de Groot said, dispensing one or the other to virtually everyone who walked by.

The festivities culminated with a trek through Christmases past, present and future with an incarnation of Joseph Barry, Harpers Ferry's 19th century historian, Day said.

Chilly weather kept visitation at the park a little slow Saturday, Park Ranger Kim Biggs said. But the people who did come were attending the demonstrations, she said.

More celebrations are scheduled today, but Day said park officials were keeping an eye on the weather to see if they would have to be canceled.

In addition to the park's events, the Harpers Ferry Merchant Association sponsored its own "Olde Tyme Christmas" activities. Visitors filed into St. Peters Church, up the hill from the park, for concerts and drama. Several merchants hosted musicians as well.

"Olde Tyme Christmas" usually is scheduled for the first two weekends in December, but inclement weather forced cancelation of many of the events last weekend, merchants said, which cost them anticipated shoppers - and sales. Most were trying to make up for lost time Saturday, and were keeping their fingers crossed for today despite a gloomy weather forecast. Many depend on sales from the Christmas event to tide them over until the summer tourist season begins.

Liam Bowers and Jimmy McClellan were holding down the fort at The Outfitter, which specializes in outdoor gear.

"It's been a really busy day today," Bowers said.

Winter jackets, gloves and hats were the top sellers.

"I think a lot of people forget to bring these things and pick them up here," McClellan said.

At Westwind Potters, Justin Parker had seen "quite a few visitors," and he remained hopeful that more would be able to come today.

Karen Hamilton, who owns Harpers Ferry Books with her husband, confessed to being a little worried about volume today.

"It's our last big chance until things shut down and then start up again," she said.

But on Saturday, she greeted a pretty steady flow of customers, "cheerfully buying holiday gifts and books," she said.

Steven Pope was philosophical about it all. If he couldn't open Molly the Rebel today, "I'd stay at home relaxing," he said. "What can you do about the weather?"

In the meantime, he was having "a phenomenal day" Saturday, and if there's no business today, "I've got Christmas presents to wrap," he said.

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