Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Magical Ozark Mountain Christmas Memories

The lobby of our hotel.
For years, I was always a bit sad that we very rarely got to have Christmas in our own home, but instead Christmas Eve found us traveling several hours to spend Christmas with extended family. It was fun sharing Christmas with extended family, but we missed waking up Christmas morning in our own beds, with presents under our own tree, and building memories of our home.

However, as is normal for our family, we created quirky traditions that became an integral part of this annual trip 'over the river and through the woods' like making sure we listened on the card radio to Hispanic Christmas Carols as we drove to the Chicago suburbs. Christmas Eve just wasn't complete until I heard 'Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus?' We also made sure we attended the Christmas Eve candle light service at our church before making the trip; no matter how hectic the last minute preparations were, with all the gifts and suitcases packed into the car for the trip, when we were walking into church, the true peace of the Christmas season would wash over me. That annual reminder of our true Christmas celebration always put everything else into perspective.

This year, just like many other things in our life, Christmas was again going to be different. Alan and I were on our own and we could do whatever we wanted - even stay home this year for Christmas! So what did we decide to do for Christmas... head to Branson, Missouri. This plan started to hatch when we discovered that Branson is famous for it's Christmas lights. After a bit of Googling, we realized a trip to Branson may be a fun Christmas adventure.

Roadside Charlie Brown trees.
So, just like all those 'Christmas Pasts' we packed up to drive over the river and through the woods for Christmas. Instead of a Christmas Eve departure, we left on Sunday, the day before Christmas Eve. We planned our schedule based on various activities we wanted our agenda to cover. The traditional Hispanic Christmas Carols were replaced with Bluegrass renditions as we drove through the Ozark Mountains.  As we neared Branson, there was a section of highway where someone had stopped along the roadside and randomly decorated  scraggly cedar trees with colorful, shiny Christmas ornaments. It was one of those things that would be a part of the magic of Christmas for children riding by on their way to grandma's house. Had we known about them, Alan and I would have brought some of our solar Christmas lights so that these rag-a-muffin trees would light up as well!

Washboard Leo - a member of the Cajun band.
We arrived in Branson, and the first stop on our agenda was Silver Dollar City. I had some trepidation about going to an amusement park in December, and I had my doubts that the Christmas decorations would live up to their description. I was expecting a half-staffed amusement park that was making a feeble attempt to cash in on Christmas, and I will be the the first to admit I was wrong. The first surprise was how busy the park was. It was a beautiful, warm day and many people came out to ride the rides and see the special holiday shows and light displays. We enjoyed two musicals - Dicken's Christmas Carol, which had amazing set changes, and It's a Wonderful Life which was a new production this year. We also enjoyed the Cajun Christmas music show. There were so many shows scheduled, we had to plan out the day beforehand to make sure we could fit everything in. It was also wonderful just walking around enjoying all the effort that was put into transforming this park into a Christmas Wonderland.

Alan is standing in front of one of
light covered buildings.
Alan told me there were almost a million lights in the park. I, of course, had to examine their effort in detail and was amazed at the care that was taken to set up the light display. Every building was not only outlined in lights, but had vertical rows of lights spaced about six inches apart that covered the facades, and each strand of lights had a been stapled to the buildings between each and every light. The large trees were incredibly wrapped so that all the branches were individually illuminated and lots of pines were added to the landscaping. Lights were not just wrapped around them, but also painstakingly worked into the entire tree. Add in twinkling snowflakes and strings of lights across all the walkways and it was truly magical as darkness fell on the park. Even the food vendors offered winter treats like warm apple dumplings, hot cider, cocoa and even wassail (we skipped the 'Red Velvet Funnel Cakes'). And best of all, there was no 'Happy Holidays' here, but a heart 'Merry CHRISTmas!'

One float in the
Parade of Lights
After the Parade of Lights that wound through the park, we had one more show on our agenda, which was called 'Homestead Pickers'. When we reached the venue, we discovered it was in a small log cabin. All the other shows had been in large, packed theaters, so I thought the cabin was just the entrance that would open up to an outdoor amphitheater, but I was wrong. We stepped into the cabin and found it was filled with an assortment of wooden chairs and had an old fashioned bedstead in the corner. This venue would only hold about 35 people.

We took our seats and were at first disappointed because there was elderly rather 'rough' lady in the audience that was talking local politics (rather loudly) and then when the first musician of the bluegrass band arrived, he continued the discussion with her. Then, as they got started we discovered this lady was not only a long time resident of Branson but also volunteered each year to tell a delightful mountain-folk rendition of the  The Night Before Christmas each year at this venue.

The Homestead Pickers & Jessie
The schedule said the bluegrass music was only a 25 minute show followed by a telling of a Christmas story, and that this story only occurred after the last show of the evening, so we were glad we had put this last on our agenda. After Jessie had finished her story, which again included the true meaning of Christmas as was intertwined throughout the Silver Dollar City experience, the bluegrass band began to play some requests. Children in the audience had their requests ready with songs I had never heard of. They turned out to be some silly songs about chickens and turkeys and it became apparent that this was a traditional stop for many of the people in this little log cabin.

As we were enjoying the music, there is a knock on the back door of the cabin, next to where the band is playing. A musician  opens the door and in walks 'Uncle Jake' in his red flannel Union Suit, who announced he was the owner of the cabin.and was coming in to go to bed. Since his house was full, including a few people sitting on his bed, he sat down with the band to talk for a while. What followed was a very hilarious half-hour with a lot of improvisation that even had the band members cracking up. The audience even started chiming in with 'one-liners'. The 25 minute show went on for over an hour and as we were leaving that cabin, Alan remarked on the fact that while we had thoroughly enjoined our entire experience at Silver Dollar City, that last hour spent in a tiny, packed, over-heated log cabin was by far the highlight of the day.

Day Two - Christmas Eve Day
We started out the morning with a bit of relaxed window shopping that included picking up a couple more Ozark related ornaments to add to our tree next year. When planning our trip, Alan researched online for a place that we could go to for Christmas Day brunch. The place he found also had listed on their web site that they were having a non-denominational Christmas Eve service at their conference center, followed by caroling and a tree lighting ceremony, so we decided that was the Christmas Eve service we would attend this year. This resort was called Big Cedar Lodge, and it was amazing. As we drove through the entrance and down the twisting, turning drive, there were several signs directing RVs, buses and motorcycles to take an alternate route. We were stumped about the motorcycle ban on the road, and assumed it was due to the sharp twists and turns. However, as we neared the actual resort, we discovered vehicles had to drive 'dead slow' as they drove through two areas where springs flowed over the road. It is not that the place was run down and the springs had overflowed the road, this was actually a very high-end resort and the road was created with cobblestone sections to actually allow the springs to run unimpeded down through the landscape, including over the roads.
We approach the spring flowing over the road  ----and make the crossing.        A view of another crossing..

I tried to convince Alan that
we needed this fireplace at home.
The conference center was designed like a huge hunting lodge and beautifully decorated. We found the conference room that was designated for the Christmas Eve service and there were several hundred chairs set up. I had been expecting a small room with just a few people attending and a somewhat vapid rendition of a Christmas Eve service. Instead, a local evangelical pastor performs this service every year and it is attended by hundreds of people. There had been a mis-communication on the service time, so the choir was arriving a bit late. The pastor filled the time by telling a story of when they had almost had to cancel the service about 20 years ago due to a huge snow storm, but the lodge had brought them out to the service in 4-wheel drive trucks. Some of the people attending this year remembered that year and families have been coming to this service for many years as their traditional Christmas.

The room where the Christmas Eve service was held.
Besides the lovely service that was again Christ-centered with an evangelical message, there were very cute decorated sugar cookies and real hot cocoa (not that packaged stuff) which also added a little to the Christmas magic. Following the service, we drove to another part of the resort for the tree lighting ceremony. It was fun to see how excited the children were at this event, The lodge put in  lot of effort with crafts for the children, more hot chocolate and treats, bonfires and out-door heaters and carriage rides.

When we left the lodge to return to Branson, we decided to have dinner at someplace we said we always wanted go - Denny's. back in the 90's a Contemporary Christian Rock Singer came out with a song called 'Christmas at Denny's', a rather depressing little ditty, but a great way to build another memory! Then back to the hotel to enjoy Christmas Eve in the hot tub.

Day Three - Christmas
As I mentioned previously, we were having brunch at Big Cedar Lodge, so we jumped in truck and drove there once again. Brunch was amazing and it was fun texting and facebooking with friends and family, catching up on how the grandkids were enjoying their Christmas morning's. After brunch, and some further exploration of Big Cedar Lodge, we returned to our hotel for a relaxing afternoon, which is where I am at right now, sitting by the fire in the lobby writing this, so I have to stop until I can finish Day Four tomorrow.....Sitting here, we just recalled a tradition we had started several years ago with out kids which we may reinvent a bit later today. The final few Christmases we had spent traveling to the Chicago suburbs, we always left after Christmas dinner, but were hungry by the time we made it back to Wisconsin. So we had made it a tradition to go to our favorite local Chinese restaurant which was always open Christmas night. And since we had brunch at 10 AM today, we may feel a bit 'peckish' later on so Alan is Googling to see if we can find an open Chinese restaurant near by....

Day Four
An airport toy from Alan's childhood
that he thought he would
never see again.
First off, let me say there was a small Christmas miracle the day after Christmas. We were strolling through a quilt and fabric store and guess what I heard playing in the background? 'Mamacita, Donde Esta Santa Claus?'

After the fabric store, next on our agenda was a Toy Museum, where Alan had lots of fun showing me all the various toys on display that he had had as a child. The Toy Museum was also home of the Harold Bell Wright Museum. Harold Bell Wright is best known as the author of 'Shepherd of the Hills' although he also penned 17 other books. Shepherd of the Hills was turned into a play many years ago and it became the first attraction to ever reside in Branson, and it is now the longest running attraction as it is still performed in the outdoor theater.

The Christmas on the Trail Show
This is a good segue into our main activity today, the play is not performed in the winter, but the Shepherd of the Hills grounds are transformed into the Trail of Lights - a 2 1/2 mile drive through an animated light display. The Sons of the Pioneers chuck wagon dinner show, which precedes the play during the rest of the year, is transformed into a country and bluegrass Christmas show during the holidays. We spent an enjoyable evening of dinner and the Christmas themed cowboy show followed by a drive through the lights and then a trip up into Inspiration Tower, a 230 foot observation tower, to view Branson at night. A highlight of the evening is that the owners of Shepherd of the Hills were sitting right in front of us at the show and we were able to meet them.

Another photo of the lights at
Silver Dollar City
And so ends our first Ozark Christmas, tomorrow we pack up and head back to the property. For all of you that were disappointed that this blog entry did not involve our off-grid experiences, fear not - when we get back home we have to jump into a lot of projects because we have company coming in January and we have a lot of things to get done before they arrive.

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