Christmas Spirit in Amish Country

If you live near Pennsylvania Amish country as I do, the National Christmas Center Family Attraction and Museum in Paradise, PA, is a perfect way to kick off the Christmas season.  A self-guided tour through this museum delivers history, culture, tradition, fantasy and faith to showcase Christmas throughout the world.

When you enter the museum, you see life-sized vignettes of American family celebrations of the holiday.  The cultural reference points include jolly Santa, children trying to sneak a peek at Santa, children tearing open presents with delight, and the traditional Christmas tree topped with a star.  These images — part of our national consciousness — actually date from mid-20th century American Christmas celebrations.  You (or your parents) might be catapulted back to these very familiar moments.

In the corridor leading to the museum proper, you are treated to an exhibit of the history of Santa Claus.  Santa is derived from St. Nicholas, a Turkish bishop known for giving gifts to the poor.  St. Nicholas was depicted wearing his bishop’s miter, a tall conical hat.

St. Nicholas

As the legend of St Nicholas evolved to Santa Claus, the clothing and depiction changed, too.  Some images are of an ugly, gnome-like creature, while others are both ugly and disturbing on many levels. Dare we say the forebears of Santa — the beloved icon — looked creepy?  The Dutch, the Belgians, and the English all added or subtracted elements over the course of Santa’s evolution. You will be fascinated with both the images and the history.

St. Nicholas - Dutch tradition

Creepy Santa 1

Creepy Santa 2

European Santas

One of my favorite exhibits was the crêches (nativity scenes).  I love these because they demonstrate that Christianity is celebrated all over the world with each culture injecting their own race, nationality, and heritage into their understanding and depiction of the story.  Indeed, it is easy to see the manifestation of God’s gift to the whole world through these crêches.

Kenya Creche

Kenyan Nativity Scene

Guatemala Creche

Guatemalan Nativity Scene

Columbia Creche

Colombian Nativity Scene

Ireland Creche

Irish Nativity Scene

I was taken back to an era when a Woolworths 5&10 store was the nerve center of a community. Lancaster, Pennsylvania was the home of the original Woolworth’s.  The museum has a replica of the store’s Christmas section.  You can walk around the space like a shopper and marvel at the cost of trinkets, decorations and gifts from back in the day.

Woolworths - Lancaster

In the museum proper, we find Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim from Charles Dickens’s, A Christmas Carol.

Dickens's booksdickens' christmas carol

From there, you can wander through one “country” after another, approaching a front door, looking in a window, and being transported to Christmas celebrations in other times and places.  There are a variety of Christmas trees, decorations and depictions of Santa and other figures important to the season.  Vignettes are captivating, inviting you to return for another look to see what you may have missed.  Be warned, this could take you into serious visual overload!  The wonderfully curated vignettes match sounds — music, animals, Christmas carols, or spoken word — with the scene.

Dutch house

Dutch home at Christmas

Dutch Santa

Dutch Santa

British Santa

British Santa

Santa Lucia

Santa Lucia – St. Lucy’s Day is celebrated in Scandinavian countries during Advent.

Moving on, you find Tudor Town and delight in the animals’ storybook Christmas.  As you move through this exhibit, you can read the story and see the characters in charming vignettes—pure fantasy.  Your inner child will approve.

Tudor Towne entrance

tudor towne scene 1

While all the fun and delight of Christmas is great, it’s easy to forget the point of the celebration. The next several rooms set the stage for Christ’s birth, beginning with “O Holy Night,” a life-size panorama of the desert and the travelers at night.  You begin to quiet inside, letting the images seep into you.

O Holy Night

After “O Holy Night,” you are back in daylight experiencing a walk through Bethlehem and the market place.

Middle East market scene

You look inside the type of dwelling Mary and Joseph would have called home; and realize they were in the Middle East.  Think about it in light of current events.  I did.  The curator did a fantastic job of making this transition and leading us into “the Holy Land.”  The mystery and wonder begin to envelope you.  You remember the Christmas story as it unfolds in front of you: the angel appearing to a shepherd; the good news heralded by horn; and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in the manger.  The tour doesn’t end here, but the Christmas story does.  You have reached the apex.

Heralding the birth

Winding down, you are shown gifts and ornaments from different cultures arranged as if in a small boutique.  There were lovely things, odd things, some you would expect, and some you wouldn’t.  Two displays, in particular, struck me as almost heretical for today’s consumer.

Did you know that cartons of cigarettes were popular gifts in the ’50s?  And, did you ever see an advertisement for the gift of a gun?

“To give or receive a Winchester Rifle or Shotgun affords pleasure and satisfaction.  At Christmas time or at any season, a man, a woman, or a boy who enjoys life will appreciate a Winchester as a gift.”

Seriously, Santa?

Sinister Santa Ads for Guns

Santa and Cigarette Ads

The National Christmas Center Family Attraction & Museum has something for everyone and is worthy of an annual pilgrimage, if you can make it.  It is open most months of the year, and now…well, ’tis the season! You can enjoy the museum with or without kids—though the teachable moments with kids are numerous.  You will experience nostalgia, hope, and the realization that there are common bonds among all peoples.

National Christmas Center

Merry Christmas, Everyone!


Author – Cheryl

Detroit REVELations (Noel Night)

Here’s a tip about a great place to kick off the Christmas holiday revels:  my new favorite city, Detroit. My brother, David, had been telling me about Noel Night for years. I found a cheap flight and spent a long weekend in the city.

Noel Night is Detroit’s 39 year old tradition, held on the first Saturday of December. It’s a customizable experience where Midtown is the star, providing entertainment at tiny, mid-sized, and mega-venues. Midtown cultural powerhouses — Detroit Institute of Arts and the Charles H. Wright African-American Museum — also host multiple performances throughout the evening.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I’m going to share the revelations I had about Detroit before I took part in Noel Night revels.

Almost as soon as I hit town, I walked over to Socratea Teahouse and Gallery in Midtown. It is a lovely, creatively curated space. It’s not only my kind of place, it’s my muse as well. I’ve spent hours writing there, while drinking pot after pot of tea or a smoothie. Socratea does tea up proper, steeping it according to type. I spent so much time there in September, that the owner, Meg Provenzino, recognized me on this visit. That’s actually kind of cool, considering I live in Maryland.

My first revelation:  Socratea is my “happy place” in Detroit.

David’s “happy place” is at the bar of a good restaurant. We checked out two new ones over the weekend. The first was Selden Standard. Not unusual of renovated buildings in Detroit, this restaurant abuts a former vagrant hangout, now a fenced-off vacant lot. At the bar, we talked with a native Detroiter, who had relocated from NYC. Our conversation flowed from Hurricane Sandy to local politics to the food industry and then to our new friend’s take on the Detroit water bill situation.

Speaking of water…did you know that 21% of the world’s fresh water flows through the City of Detroit? The city has been described as the Saudi Arabia of water!

My second revelation: Great food, great atmosphere, and great company – that’s my recipe for a great evening, and it is easy to find that in Detroit. There is a lot of civic pride, and the people are the heart of the city.  Give it up for the Midwest and its accessible and friendly people, even in a hardcore city!

Conversations with random people continued the next day. We started at Astro Coffee on Michigan Avenue in Corktown. It’s in an isolated commercial block in a transitional area. The very successful Slows Bar-B-Q probably started the transition, and is located at one end of the block.

We walked to the other end of the block and saw this signage:  “Pawnshop” and “Gold Cash Gold.” Instead of a pawnshop, though, the interior was fitted out as a restaurant. We were curious; and the door was unlocked, so we went in. The owner, Ronald Cooley, met us inside; gave us a tour; explained all the recycled materials used in the decor; and confirmed that the building was formerly a pawnshop. So, he figured, what the hey – keep the sign and call the restaurant Gold Cash Gold! The grand opening was later that night. It turns out the Cooley family owns both Slows and Gold Cash Gold, and their restaurants anchor the block.

My third revelation:  I saw an area in transition and a single block transformed by small businesses. This block in Corktown is Exhibit A for reclaiming an area for fun and entertainment one building and one block at a time.

Later that day, we went to a wine shop — Fine Wine Source — in Livonia, a Detroit suburb. I asked David why we were driving so far for a wine shop. As it happened, that little wine store run was worth it.

Fine Wine Source is located in a small strip mall not far from the freeway.  It’s an unpretentious family-owned business. The mother, father, and daughter provided personal and superb customer service. They acknowledge and appreciate returning customers, which, of course, keeps them coming back, even if they live miles away. The owner’s knowledge of wine and wine storage goes deep, and he’s happy to make his customers a little smarter about wine.

The bonus was the Saturday wine tasting and meeting Proprietor and Winemaker, Lorenzo Gatteschia. We tasted four wines from his Tuscan estate and winery, Podere Ciona. The wines were very nice and we bought a couple of bottles. Even though we were trying to beat it back to Midtown before the Noel Night crowds descended, it was great spending a little time in this shop to sip and learn.

My fourth revelation:  I had a very good experience with customer service at Detroit businesses. Look, people in the Detroit metro area are not going to let poor customer service be their trademark; the city has been maligned enough. No, I think the award for poor customer service might go to – ahem! – Washington, DC. 

So, now for the weekend’s signature event:  Noel Night. We had a loose plan for the venues and artists we would see that night. We started at Socratea, which offered free tea samples, cookies, and 10-minute massages to its first 500 customers. We moved on to the Museum of Contemporary Art -Detroit (MOCAD). From there, to Flo Boutique to hear a singer, who was scheduled to perform in the shop window. (We missed his set, but I bought a cute hat.) We stopped through an art gallery on our way to a small pizza shop to hear an up-and-coming vocalist.

The performance by the youth choir, Mosaic Singers, at the Charles H. Wright African-American Museum was one of the highlights of our Noel Night. It was standing room only, but we didn’t stand for long. We slipped into two seats in the middle of the back row as soon as they were vacated, without applying our elbows. (It pays to be quick and civilized!)

We connected with two friends, who were at the Detroit Institute of Art cafe getting some grub. They joined us at the Unitarian Universalist Church for our Noel Night grand finale: Thornetta Davis. She’s a Detroit original, an R&B vocalist, with a huge, gorgeous mid-range voice. Her guitarist and keyboardist are world-class musicians. Thornetta set the tone for the Christmas season with rousing, joyous carols. Her rendition of “Silent Night” — one of the best I’ve ever heard — evoked pure wonder at the long-awaited birth.

If you go to Detroit for Noel Night, anticipate the harshest weather and pack the right layers of clothing so you’re comfortable walking outdoors from venue to venue. Detroiters aren’t weather wimps.  Nothing stops them from reveling on Noel Night to get their Christmas spirit on.

Campus Martius - Christmas tree

Campus Martius – Christmas tree