I have the good fortune of living in the town where iconic film star Jimmy Stewart, who played the lead role in the classic holiday movie “It’s A Wonderful Life,” was born, raised, and to which he often returned. The town of Indiana, PA is the county seat of Indiana County, PA, which for decades has laid a somewhat dubious claim to the title “Christmas Tree Capital of the World.” We’re not the biggest producer of Christmas Trees in the world any more, but we were the first place to grow them as dedicated crops, and the business still means a lot to our local identity.
As Philadelphia Inquirer writer Jeff Gammage wrote, way back in 1997, “Trees cut from its mountainside farms are shipped everywhere from Mexico to England, Florida to Arizona. They are wrapped in brown paper and sent via UPS to Pittsburgh, or strapped onto the roofs of cars that drive in from all over New York State.
One couple travels here each year from Philadelphia to buy a tree, which their dog picks out. Another family pops a bottle of champagne over theirs, christening it for the season.
In Indiana, you can drive from lot to lot and spend $79.50 for a 15-foot Fraser fir or $11.93 for a five-foot white pine, then cruise through a gaggle of glowing Santas at the Festival of Lights or shake hands with Queen Evergreen, the tiara-clad promoter of Indiana County Christmas trees.”
We take this Christmas business seriously, and in the years since Gammage wrote, our seasonal celebrations have expanded to include an “It’s a Wonderful Life” Light-Up night that features a 5o+ unit parade starring the high school marching band playing Christmas songs, floats from a cross-section of community groups, organizations, athletic and dance teams, and even (my favorite) a corps of farm folks stoicly piloting a squadron of beautifully restored antique tractors.
There is a bonfire in the center of town, free cocoa and crafts, an increasingly accomplished Jimmy Stewart impersonator wandering the crowd and, of course, Santa delivered on the back of a firetruck into the hands of the teaming masses of children.
This year, we had an additional treat: groups of travelers who were on bus tours visiting Indiana to see the Jimmy Stewart Museum and to enjoy the festival were seated on floats and celebrated as the welcomed visitors they are. I imagine we’re not the only town to show our appreciation to our guests, but I’ve never heard of anyplace else that puts visitors in a parade. Very cool.
We celebrated in equally warm fashion on one of the coldest evenings we’ve had to date, gathering with friends at a local pub for dinner and cocktails before watching the parade, then going back to Dave & Laura’s for beers, snacks, conversation and camaraderie by a roaring fire.
Earlier that day, I bemoaned to my wife that it just felt too early this year, that I didn’t have any sense of anticipation, but after an evening like that I was raring to go. Holidays 2015–bring it on! I’m ready.
All Photos Below are from The Indiana Gazette