Do you remember the final scene in “Field of Dreams,” the aerial shot of hundreds of pairs of headlights snaking single-file through the darkness to their floodlit destination?
That’s what I imagine McAdenville, North Carolina, looks like from above in December — but without the contrast. Instead of dark Iowa cornfields, the drive-in pilgrims are surrounded on all sides by bursts of red, white and green light.
Inching off Interstate 85 at exit 23, they turn onto Main Street and make their way, single-file, past the old brick duplex mill houses, then turn right onto Wesleyan Drive at the only traffic light in the center of town, then ease past the lake and the fire station, down the hill to the newer, Charleston-style homes of McAdenville Village.
This is where Christmas Town U.S.A. comes alive these days, though none of the two-story houses with sweeping verandas existed 20 years ago. Now, however, they’re a sight to behold, every house adorned every December for the pleasure of tens of thousands who make their way to and through this town of 800 for an unfiltered dose of holiday spirit.
If you make that drive down Main Street, you’ll cruise right past the house Steve Rankin’s parents bought when he was 6 months old. He’s 81 now and it remains his home, albeit after a bit of renovation over the years.
The McAdenville Christmas lights tradition officially dates to 1956, though Steve would tell you the seeds were planted two years earlier. Either way, the man known as “Mr. McAdenville” has seen it from the beginning.
Son of the town barber, he shined shoes at the general store as a boy, and delivered the local newspaper for years, getting to know just about everyone in town. As an adult, he worked for 48 years where just about everyone worked, at the textile mill that was the town’s reason for being.
The town’s first cotton mill opened around 1880, courtesy of Rufus Yancey McAden, but the Great Depression put that operation out of business in 1935. Four years later, Robert Lee Stowe, who ran a mill in nearby Belmont, essentially bought up the entire town along with his son Daniel and son-in-law William Pharr.
Stowe Mills reopened McAdenville’s shuttered factories and rented out most of the town’s housing to company employees, bringing the community back to life. The business changed its name to Pharr Yarns in 1950, and four years later a few men who worked at the mill decided to add a little oomph to the town’s holiday celebration. They grabbed some old metal rods and bent them in the shape of letters, spelling out “Merry Christmas” on the hill in front of the lake. They hooked up an extension cord and ran it to their improvised sculpture, stringing lights around the letters for all to see after dark.
The tradition stuck, and two years later, in 1956, local residents began to light their own houses en masse. William Pharr encouraged the expansion, and the company covered the difference in employees’ power bills between November and December to help ensure maximum participation. His wife, Catherine, preferred red, white and green lights, and those colors continue to dominate displays.
One far more important aspect of the Pharrs’ vision for the celebration has also endured: The McAdenville lights are free of commercial influences in virtually every sense. Admission has never been charged and never will be, and town ordinances prohibit any type of street vending that would normally be present at an event that draws untold thousands of visitors annually.
“We want people to come to see the lights and enjoy the lights,” Steve Rankin says. “Our churches can give away hot chocolate, but it’s inside, it’s not on the street. If people want hot chocolate or coffee they can come to the Baptist church, or the Wesleyan church on the other end of town. No street vendors at all, and that’s good. People walking through town can see everything without being obligated to buy something.”
Charlie Brown would surely approve, as do the families of all sizes and backgrounds who have made McAdenville part of their holiday tradition for decades. Considering the drive-through nature of the display, it’s difficult to get firm attendance figures, but Rankin helped organize a study via a UNC Charlotte professor in 2004 that estimated 600,000 people saw that year’s display — with more than 75 percent of them coming from outside Gaston County.
As you might imagine, the traffic jams can be apocalyptic at times, particularly on weekend evenings closer to Christmas. Those crowds literally stop traffic on I-85, and the North Carolina Department of Transportation annually issues public information statements about the light display on its website and highway message signs miles from McAdenville. Every year, Rankin estimates, thousands of carloads remain stuck on the offramps when the lights switch off on a given night and miss out on the show.
That flipping of the switch traditionally occurs at 11 p.m., but will happen an hour earlier, one of several adjustments organizers have made in the interest of public safety as the COVID-19 pandemic makes its presence felt in every aspect of day-to-day life.
In addition to shutting down the light show at 10:00, the popular Christmas Town 5K was run virtually this year, and the annual tree lighting ceremony and yule log ceremony have been canceled. Organizers also will not light up the trees around the town lake and other areas that traditionally have been gathering points for larger groups.
Though those changes will give the celebration a different feel than in years past, Rankin said there was no pushback in planning meetings.
“It was a no-brainer,” he said. “We can’t have anyone coming and getting sick because of our lights.”
The show will go on, however, and in that McAdenville is fortunate. Because so many visitors never leave their cars when viewing the lights and everything about the celebration occurs outdoors anyway, social distancing was possible long before anyone had ever heard that phrase.
So, while the official line is that organizers just don’t know what’s going to happen until 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 1, when the lights will flip on for the first time in 2020, they have their suspicions.
Given the nature of the event, not to mention everyone’s pent-up need to reclaim some semblance of normalcy in a year that has laid waste to routine and tradition, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the same kind of traffic jams the area has come to know and embrace for decades.
“We’re thinking that the crowds are still going to come,” Rankin said.
Oh, people will come, Steve. People will most definitely come.