Friday, December 8, 2017

The National Christmas Center, an Endangered Pennsylvania Gem

No offense to fans and practitioners, but in my husband’s opinion, the road to hell is a gauntlet lined with the wheeze and whine of bagpipes.  He might be alone in his view, and, in fact, I recently learned at the National Christmas Center that, for centuries, bagpipes were used by shepherds to soothe their flocks, and may have played a lullaby for the newborn Jesus.  For a short time longer, the Christmas Center invites visitors on an extraordinary journey into the season’s history, cultural impact, fun, and inspiration.

With my mother and sister, Rita, I drove past rolling fields, silos, farms, and Amish carriages to reach the National Christmas Center in Paradise, PA.  Like a geode, the plain exterior betrays nothing of the sparkle inside.  Nor does the foyer, or the glimpse of the gift shop.  Near the ticket counter, a life-sized mannequin in Victorian garb slouches against the wall.  While his hang dog expression reflects more the post-Christmas exhaustion of vendors and parents than the holiday’s magic, he is a charming hint of what awaits in the rooms ahead.

I was not the only one barely repressing the urge to clap my hands, jump up and down, and say “yippee!” like a child on Christmas morning while viewing this extraordinary collection of Christmas memorabilia, full-scale re-creations of iconic settings, and even a walk-in Woolworth’s.  The piped-in hymns and Christmas carols harmonized with the visitors’ chorus of “Wow! Beautiful,” “Oh my gosh, remember that?” or, “I had one of those!”  Exhibits range from kitschy to reverent, from familiar to novel, from historic to nostalgic, rekindling that wonderful childhood December immersion in commercial and mystical promises.

We walked galleries of cobbled streets winding through softly lighted “villages” and peered through multi-paned windows to learn about Christmas crafts, traditions, and beliefs from around the world. I stood eye-to-eye with stunning, remarkably life-like representations of Father Christmas. We were enchanted as any small child by the animatronic reindeer and elves in Santa’s workshop, and the detailed vignettes that embody the story of the woodland creatures of “Tudor Towne.”

Innumerable threads weave through each person’s sense of Christmas, and Jim Morrison, the founder and curator of the Christmas Center, seems to have thought of them all.  There are vintage decorations, china sets, advertising art, countless Santa interpretations, a vast collection of crèches, and a desk formerly owned by Clement Clark Moore, author of “The Night Before Christmas.”  A flickering newsreel of an aging Virginia O’Hanlon runs in a loop as she recalls the letter she wrote in 1897 as an eight-year-old with a faltering belief in Santa.  Spurred by her father’s confidence that, “If you see it in The [New York] Sun, it’s so,” she wrote to the paper, seeking truth.  Newsman Francis Pharcellus Church provided the paper’s reassuring, hopeful response, “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist…”

As Mom, Rita, and I neared the end of our tour, glass cases filled with crèches gave way to narrow alleys and the gray stucco walls of ancient Bethlehem.  We visitors became pilgrims joining shepherds, wise men, donkeys, sheep, and a camel to circle close and behold the Holy Family.  

Remember the goony be-speckled kid in the pink bunny pajama suit in “The Christmas Story”?  You’ll spot him at the museum.  Remember Patty Play Pal, pink and blue plastic piggy banks, and Ginny dolls?  They’re there too.  Remember velvety nights lying on your stomach under a Christmas tree studying a creche, surrounded by the glow of lights, and suffused with joyful anticipation? You’ll feel that at the Center. 

But not for long. 

Unless a patron miraculously steps forward, the National Christmas Center is closing in January… So make a plan to go; you do not want to miss it.        


Sydney Thayer said...

Having changed from baptized Episcopalian to more convenient Presbyterian with move to Pelham, I am on Dave's side when it comes to bagpipes...They seem to blow them off-key whenever they can find room in the church calendar though are tolerated with a wry smile due to their sexy, "uplifting" kilts ...
Once again, love your imagery especially the Geode...

gail m said...

I still have my beloved Patty and Peter Playpals, tenderly wrapped. Perhaps I will share them with my granddaughter next summer.

And for me, too, that geode simile really popped out! Glad you had time to visit this treasure.

xo gail

Gail Bromer said...

I will always love bagpipes. It's in my genes.
I too have fond childhood memories of a simpler time when the sentiment and magic of Christmas made everything better for a time. Oh, how I wish I could shake the glitter of the Christmas globe over this country and make it better for a time.

Lea said...

Speaking of metaphors, love the image of the Christmas globe, Gail, and my heart is with yours on that! XO