A Tale of Three Tennessee Christmases
Each December, Franklin, Covington and Rugby resemble mid-Victorian England, transforming into sites of Christmas past with costumes, carolers, characters and more.
The public is invited to join in the festivities as each town puts its spin on the era made famous by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Victorian-clad townsfolk stroll city squares and invite visitors to shop; carolers and choirs croon holiday favorites; and hansom cab drivers offer horse-drawn carriage rides. Events range from period dance demonstrations to puppet shows.
Franklin boasts the largest of the celebrations, Dickens of a Christmas, with crowds that range from 50,000 to last year’s 150,000. Nice weather seems to increase the number. The event is always held the second weekend in December, Saturday and Sunday, and is produced by the Heritage Foundation of Franklin & Williamson County. Proximity to Nashville gives Franklin access to a plethora of musical talent.
“On Saturday night, we bring in somebody with name recognition to lead the ‘town sing,’” says festival coordinator Abby Williams. Holding candles, the audience joins in on such classics as “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World.” Williams says, “It’s a magical part of the Dickens celebration.” Other artists perform throughout the weekend, including rock violinist Joseph Shackelford for the 2016 celebration, which marks the 32nd year for the festival.
About 100 costumed characters populate the town during the two-day celebration, including a 10-foot stilt walker dressed in an 1800s circus outfit. Visitors who dress the Victorian-era part compete for a prize, usually a local merchant gift certificate.
Every year, Franklin guarantees snow as a photography backdrop, thanks to a snow machine. Food vendors offer turkey legs, sugarplums and kettle corn along with hotdogs and hamburgers, while Father and Mother Christmas hand out candy canes. Awash in Victorian architecture, Franklin is decorated in garlands, bows and poinsettias, but, Williams adds, “We don’t need a lot of decorations because the town is so charming.”
Covington’s Dickens on the Square event is also held the second weekend of December on Saturday and Sunday. “When we started it, the food was going to be exactly like it was in England,” explains Lee Johnston, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. “People were doing figgy pudding and bangers and mash.” He laughs and admits, “That didn’t go over. People like ‘regular’ food.” Those attending the festival are now offered hamburgers and hot dogs as well as the menu items at area restaurants.
Covington spruces up with decorations using cedar, red bows and artifacts such as sled ice skates. Shop owners adorn their storefront windows with festive furnishings. Store merchants and volunteers dress in period outfits, many made by local seamstresses. “We have little girls and boys dressed in knickers and hats who sell the Covington Times for a nickel,” Johnston says. The paper serves as an event itinerary and, he notes, the children keep the money. In addition to Father Christmas listening to children’s wishes, the town offers a dramatic reading of The Night Before Christmas and an authentic-to-the-times Punch and Judy puppet show.
“We’ll have church choirs, school choirs, family choirs, whoever wants to contribute to the music,” he adds. “On Saturday night, we have the lighting of the Christmas tree.” Crowds range from 600 to 3,000, depending on the weather. “We’ve got room to grow, but you can be too much of a success,” Johnston says. Mainly, he says, he’d like visitors “to explore our nice little town and come back throughout the year.”
Rugby offers its Christmas event both Saturdays of the first and second weekends of December. The 2016 event marks the 21st year for the village, which distinguishes its festivities by paying tribute to its unique history.
“Our volunteers and community members wear costumes of the period, either Victorian or Appalachian,” explains David Mayfield, education coordinator with Historic Rugby, Inc. The Appalachian nod “is to recognize those local settlers of the area that helped build this British colony.” Rugby was settled in 1880.
Instrumentalists and singers range from the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra to Appalachian tradition performers as well as carolers. “Our local residents of Beacon Hill and nearby neighbors help with decorations and by portraying characters from Rugby’s past,” he says. Shops extend hours for visitors.
At two seatings each weekend, the Harrow Road Café offers authentic fare based on Dickens’ yuletide story; reservations are required. Rugby forgoes decorating with lights, but trees are bedecked in paper, metal and glass ornaments, and dried flowers, holly wreaths and sprays made by volunteers add Christmas cheer.
Each town enjoys sharing seasonal joy with visitors, offering a glimpse into a picturesque past. “We really try to make it seem like you are walking through the town of Charles Dickens,” says Williams of Franklin. “It’s the top event that we do that really brings the community together.”