All photos/art by Christian Kozowyk
Read more: Small-Town Holiday Celebrations
There are layers in every town that touch and connect its residents. Ritual, communal gathering, collective memory: In the New Hampshire town where I live, those layers are almost visible in our annual town Christmas party. I think of them most strongly at the end of the party, when, by tradition, in an old, darkened town hall, we pass along the flame of a candle from one to the next, and then sing, in wavering voices, the homely lyrics of an old song that has for decades been part of our town’s winter:
It is better to light just one little candle
Than to stumble in the dark.
Better far that you light just one little candle;
All you need’s a tiny spark …
It was in the mid-1970s when Mary Rickson had the idea. Mary knew something about Orange, a little hill town on the western slopes of Mount Cardigan in central New Hampshire–mostly wooded state park, a hundred-some people, almost all of whom worked out of town. With no post office or real village center, townspeople got together only once a year, at Town Meeting in March. Mary noticed that people often walked out of the meeting on opposite sides of an issue, and the hard feelings would linger for a long time. She figured it would do the town some good if there were other chances during the year when folks could gather on common ground and share a meal or some conversation without politics involved.
Mary enlisted a couple of local women and an 18-year-old kid named Gary Hamel and came up with the idea for a town Christmas party. Mary did all the cooking that first year. Gary made a piñata for the kids. Danny Hazelton, a year younger than Gary, found a Santa costume and handed out stuffed animals. Mary sewed those herself, too, working months ahead so she’d have enough for every kid in town. At the end of the party, everyone circled around the big hall and sang “One Little Candle,” a song that Mary had picked up when she’d cooked for a Girl Scout camp.
Over the years, the meal grew into a communal potluck. Beyond that, the players and essential ingredients stayed remarkably unchanged. Mary sewed animals year-round. She built up an inventory that the town drew on for years after she moved to the Buffalo, New York, area in the early 1990s.
Ten years ago, though, that inventory had dwindled to nothing. A couple of weeks before the party, Gary called up a few folks with an idea: Why not create something even more special for every kid in town under the age of 13? Not just a stuffed animal, but a stuffed animal based on a character from a storybook? And not just a storybook, but an original story written and illustrated and produced by us, and make that a present, too? And while we’re at it, make it a story that teaches the kids something about their town?
By then, Gary had become an accomplished artist as well as our unofficial town historian. He carried the same sense of civic impulse that had inspired Mary Rickson. And–you almost have to know Gary to know the extent of this–he brought an infectious, childlike sense of enthusiasm to the new idea. We worked manically those two weeks to pull off the presents–a story called “Blackberries and Cream,” featuring a young bear named Harry (based on two of our late town fathers, Harry Eastman, a relative of mine, and Harry Powell), plus a stuffed bear wearing a sweater. We called ourselves “The Critter Tales Team,” and I have to say: The illustrated book and stuffed bear were pieces of art.
The next year we pulled off “Anna Beaver, Ballerina” with collage illustrations and a satin-ribbon binding, along with a stuffed dancing beaver in a tutu. Then it was an elaborate fold-out topographic map telling the story of “Lucy Moose and the Hurricane of ’38,” complete with pencil-sketch postcards and a stuffed moose with Velcro-detachable companion mouse.
A surprising number of artists and writers and seamstresses live in our small town, and we’ve all contributed, each year outdoing the previous, always at the 11th hour. Recipes … spiral-bound books … illustrated pocket folders with activities … embedded mica from Mount Cardigan … stuffed red squirrels, turtles, ladybugs, owls, frogs. Some of the volunteers have pushed to start working on the project much earlier in the year, but Gary has held firm to the time frame. He’s inspired by the intensity of the tight deadline, “that sense of elves starting from nothing and creating this little miracle just in time,” he says.
Some of the party’s layers aren’t as visible. The annual gathering means a lot to us here, and more to Gary than many people know. He’s lost both his parents and lives alone. He doesn’t bother putting up a tree or decorations in his own house. The town party, in a real sense, is his Christmas.
And the spark he gives the town at this time of year is his gift to us.