Christmas in America’s heartland is a unique experience. Especially in the region known as the Ozark Mountains where I was raised and came to faith in Jesus.
The Ozarks are known for their rugged terrain of hardwood forests, sparkling springs, subterranean caverns, and equally rustic history of pioneer settlement, superstition and fierce independence. It also has a reputation for being the buckle of the American Bible Belt. As a result, it is one of the few remaining places where Christmas and the birth of Christ are still virtually inseparable.
Unlike other parts of the world, Christmas was commonly celebrated in the Ozarks on January 6th until the early 20th Century. This was a holdover from the Julian calendar in Europe. Never mind England and Scotland had long switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, December 25th was long considered New Christmas. In fact, local legends claim that every year on Old Christmas Eve, the animals are given the power of speech and if you go into the woods and listen, you may hear the sounds of animals praying.
Today, Christmas in the Ozarks begins the day after Thanksgiving when most people put up their tree and begin decorating their homes, inside and out. Historically, the tree is a hand-cut, red cedar that is native to the region, and since the arrival of electricity, the more coloured lights the better. Candles scented with pine, spice, cranberry or bergamot are found in business and home alike. Some years, Christmas Day is cold and snowy. Other years, it can be icy from freezing rain, or sunny and down-right autumnal. Either way, we still sang Christmas carols in small groups on doorsteps and bundled up for hayrides at night.
While there are a few recognizable traditions in the region, such as gift giving on Christmas Eve, sugary pumpkin and pecan pies, real apple cider, and stockings stuffed with small gifts, candy and an orange on Christmas morning, a fundamental difference is the feeling of Christmas in the Ozarks. A feeling that I wanted my daughter to experience at least once as a child in a place called Branson at New Christmas time.
Branson began as a sleepy town in the heart of the Ozarks and has since become the new Nashville of the Midwest. Certainly, the Ozarks has not escaped the glitzy commercialisation of Xmas. However, even now, the story of Santa is commonly linked to the story of Christ, and nativities are everywhere, including 28-foot tall figures on a hillside. At Christmas time, you are surrounded by live professional shows enacting the Christmas Story, one even depicting Santa explaining how the symbols of Christmas lead back to Jesus Christ. You will also find a giant, spot-lighted rocking chair with a grandparent reading from the Book of Luke, mile-long light shows, manger-themed petting zoos, and an entire frontier village theme park decked out in Christmas finery, complete with a Wilderness Church and working steam train.
It may sound very artificial, and certainly to some degree it is now, but there is still a unique Christmas feel that combines cold, starry skies, strings of light, and fragrances of cedar, hay and woodsmoke, with songs of good news and the wonder of the virgin birth. That is the essence of Christmas in the Ozarks.