Knoxvilleâ’s Scrooge-like awakening
Christmas season in our home town has necessarily involved a good deal of fantasy. We had an idea of what the holidays were supposed to look like, from movies and songs, but rarely did in Knoxville, where the season was generally an exercise in combative shopping, competitive driving, and creative accounting.
Christmas, whether regarded as essentially a Christian holiday, a commercial season, or as a pagan celebration of the solsticeâ"all three aspects of the holiday are decades older than Rudolphâ"was, from its obscure beginnings, a community celebration, not an insulated family gathering. In the best-loved holiday stories from A Christmas Carol to â“A Charlie Brown Christmas,â” thereâ’s an emphasis on community life: The serendipitous encounter, neighborly cheer, and a benevolent spirit of a sort that doesnâ’t always come natural to East Tennesseans.
You canâ’t read a December newspaper from a century or more ago without suspecting weâ’ve lost something. Not religion, necessarilyâ"Christmas may be more overtly religious now than it was thenâ"but a sense of community revelry. Sometime in the 20th century we began spending much of the holiday in cars in traffic jams and over-full parking lots, in checkout lines in strip malls, and recently, late at night in front of a computer screen, alone with a credit card.
Some of itâ’s fun, much of it isnâ’t, but little of it had to do with coming together as a community, which once seemed like the point of holidays.
Knoxvillians didnâ’t always relish the idea of getting together in public. Even the Christmas parade, as late as the â‘80s and â‘90s, was about converging on a downtown that had already closed for the day, and didnâ’t have as much as a cup of hot chocolate to offer. We were pretending, for our childrenâ’s sake, that we still lived in a city. We came and parked and left, quickly, lest we encounter a stranger.
Knoxville may be changing some. This past weekend, a middle-aged man was up on a ladder over a Gay Street sidewalk, hanging holiday greenery on a bank building.
â“Itâ’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,â” a passerby below him commented, in song. â“Everywhere you go!â” the man on the ladder bellowed back, almost in key. Other strangers, passing in the opposite direction, laughed and hummed in place of forgotten words.
This year, Knoxville may be getting to know itself better than ever before. The Christmas Tree Lightingâ’s this weekend, accompanied by caroling and marshmallow roasting, which kicks off the skating rink on Market Square. Thatâ’s just the beginning. Over the next month, weâ’ll witness a Santa Parade, a Christmas jazz concert, a big-name Christmas bluegrass concert, a Christmas symphony concert, a Christmas comedy, a classic Christmas movie, a Christmas contemporary dance performance, a Christmas ballet, a Christmas handbell recital, a Christmas Fair, a Jingle Bell Run, a Christmas train ride, a Tour of Lights Bike Ride, a Christmas Dinner Cruise.
All that stuff will be downtown, of course. Elsewhere, the Zoo and Ijams are hosting holiday parties, there are lighting events at Chilhowee Park and Concord Park, another parade in Fountain City, and a Victorian Home Tour will take the curious into the historic neighborhoods. Thatâ’s not counting hundreds of other public musical events in churches and elsewhere.
Knoxvilleâ’s holiday festivities arenâ’t all over by Pearl Harbor Day, as has been Knoxvilleâ’s prudent custom in the past. Some stretch even into Christtmas week. This New Yearâ’s Eve will witness what we hope will be an annual event, a family celebration of the holiday on Market Square; planners promise fireworks, musical performances, and a ball drop. For those who have gotten bored with the traditional American New Yearâ’s Eveâ"ditch the kids, drive to someoneâ’s house, watch TV, drink way too much, and drive homeâ"we expect New Years on Market Square to be a refreshing option. Itâ’s particularly apropos, considering that Adolph Ochs, the New York Times publisher whoâ’s credited with creating the whole Times Square holiday scene, and specifically the ball-drop, grew up in downtown Knoxville and started his career in journalism on our Market Square.
It all bodes well for this city that fell out of touch with itself. Whatâ’s the opposite of nostalgia? Today, a middle-aged Knoxvillian might well tell his kids, In my day, the holidays werenâ’t nearly as much fun as this. Go out and enjoy it.
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