In the 1988 movie "Funny Farm," Chevy Chase's character Andy Farmer—hoping to make a good impression on prospective buyers of the property he's trying to sell—bribes local folks to turn their town into a cheery, Christmas-y village worthy of Norman Rockwell and Currier & Ives. Carolers, sleigh rides, guys in Santa suits, the works.
If only he'd bought that property in Newaygo instead of Vermont, he wouldn't have had to go to so much trouble and expense. Newaygo's annual Christmas Walk, part of a multi-day holiday celebration, comes complete with twinkly lights, horse-drawn wagon rides, roasted chestnuts, carols—and crowds!
The first time Ray and I attended the event, just after moving here, we weren't expecting much. While Newaygo had a lovely little shopping district, we'd never seen it exactly bustling, especially in winter. We figured we'd join a few other hardy souls watching the Christmas tree lighting, wander into a shop or two to snag the free cookies we'd heard about and call it a night.
Imagine our astonishment when we turned onto the main street and found ourselves in the midst of a traffic jam. Cars were backed up in both directions trying to get into town, and people were already spilling onto the streets. When we finally managed to park and join the crowd, we were swept up in the festivity.
I guess that's what keeps drawing me back year after year. On the face of it, it's hard to explain the appeal of shuffling down the sidewalk with several hundred other people, jostling to get into shops that are usually easy to access but are mobbed on this night, taking in sights, smells and sounds—the tree lighting, the roasted chestnuts, the holiday songs—that change little from year to year. All I can say is, it's a night that blends memories of long-ago Christmases with anticipation of the coming season and makes the ordinary seem special.
A big part of the pleasure is running into friends on the street, in the shops or in the churches and the historical museum, which have special events and exhibits. So what if I just saw those friends a few days earlier—or that very afternoon? Everyone seems even friendlier at the Christmas Walk.
After our first experience with Christmas Walk traffic, we've made a point of arriving early and grabbing a bite in a local eatery. This year it was Newaygo Brewing Co., which was decked out with Christmas ornaments artfully hung from the chandeliers and wait-staff wearing embellished holiday sweaters (including one with "Ugly Christmas Sweater" knit right into the design).
Then, the slow procession down the street, but with a few new twists this year. The home furnishings store, Sui Generis, had just moved into its big, bright, new location in The Stream building and was holding its grand opening. Seeing the long-vacant corner of that building lit up and lively made for an uptown feeling. Down the street, Fuego, a new-ish fusion restaurant in nearby Grant, had set up a taco stand. When we stopped by, about an hour into the evening, they'd already sold 180 tacos and had to send out for more ingredients. It was heartening to see these local businesses—as well as others up and down the street—attracting customers.
A highlight of the evening was the photography exhibit and contest at Newaygo United Methodist Church (and not just because I had two photos in the show). I loved seeing the variety of artistic approaches and subjects—toads to tools, landscapes to loved ones. Apparently a lot of other Christmas Walkers did, too: more than 1,000 people came through the exhibit.
When I look at our calendar for the rest of the month, I see days filled with gatherings of family and friends, the local library book sale, and a smattering of meetings and appointments. It'll all be over so quickly, which makes me glad for getting an early start with Newaygo's Christmas Walk.
Do you have can't-miss holiday events and activities, or do you try to do something different every year?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.