Holidays in the Hills

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Everything is ever-so-slightly different in Delaware County. We moved here a year and a half ago from Ulster County – Woodstock and Kingston – a bit closer to the Hudson River. Now we’re in the heart of the Catskill Mountains. Summers are a little cooler. The wind blows pretty much constantly through the maples in front of our old house all year long. Winter starts in November, maybe even sooner. And the farther you travel into the fifth-largest, and very sparsely populated county in the western Catskills, and the greater the sense of entering another world.

This will be our second winter and second holiday season in Franklin. Last year we learned that summer is all about socializing. Winter, however, is treated as a serious opportunity to hunker down and get creative work done. It’s a rhythm, kind of reminiscent of farm life, which is still hanging on by its fingernails here. People have to make a real effort to occasionally connect with the community. And they do. Business may go on as usual in nearby Oneonta or Delhi, but in the hill towns, things get very quiet when the thermostat stays below freezing.

This postcard existence presented me with some unforeseen realities. My visions of a big, bumptious crowd of family converging on our farmhouse have proven to be unrealistic, at least for now. Babies and puppies don’t travel easily, so we’ll be traveling to visit the people (and dogs) we love.

Franklin isn’t a wild town. This year finally saw the passage of a referendum to reverse the town’s 1899 ban on the sale of alcohol in restaurants. So it’s not surprising that we don’t have anything as wild and wooly as Woodstock’s annual celebration of Santa’s arrival. But Oneonta has a parade with Santa in November which I haven’t yet experienced. Santa then takes residence in a little cottage on Main Street for several weekends before Christmas. I can’t imagine what kind of trouble the elves get into while he’s sitting around in Oneonta.

There’s a parade with Santa in Cooperstown, too. If there is a more Christmas-y looking village than Cooperstown, I honestly don’t know where it is.

I hear the town of Skaneateles, which isn’t nearly as far from us as it once was, transforms into a Dickens village for the holidays. We may go see this year. https://www.skaneateles.com/calendar/annual-events/dickens-christmas

But we don’t usually go where the big crowds are. We moved to northern Delaware County specifically because I was longing for a smaller, quieter world. I look for the understated celebrations.

Last year we spent an unforgettable evening at the Farmers Museum.

If you have never been there, you have missed something. People in period garb mingle with visitors in an 1850’s village created by a collection of historical buildings from around the region, some from as far away as Greene County. There’s an inn, a mercantile, a blacksmith shop, a pharmacy, print shop, a schoolhouse, a carousel. There are houses ranging from grand to humble. And there are animals. For one night in winter, it is illuminated. https://www.farmersmuseum.org/stec_event/candlelight/

I’ve always wanted to go and it did not disappoint. The historical buildings were lit by hundreds of electric candles, and the paths were lined with candles, too. There was mulled cider in iron kettles over roaring bonfires, carols sung both outside and in the old church. And then, right as if on cue, big, fluffy, Hollywood-style snowflakes fell softly over the entire thing. It was magic. I think we have to do it again.

Sharon Springs, in not-too-far Schoharie County, has a holiday tradition that I’ve wanted to get to. Maybe this is the year. This is a participatory celebration, with folks showing up in Victorian garb. The village mayor, a born actor, used to read a poem called “The Christmas Chicken.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vdb2ZAYK0pI I hope he still does it. The local celebrities, the owners of the Beekman 1802 lifestyle brand, market the whole event like Victorian holidays have never been marketed before. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRvpRQBUg9M

But we don’t really have to travel to get in the holiday spirit.

On December 7th, Franklin hosted its 18th annual Christmas Stroll and Holiday Market. It started at nine and ended at seven at night. The library had a story hour for children plus a book sale, the firehouse was full to bursting with various vendors, and the local shops opened their doors for the event. There was music, bazaars and food at the local churches and even the local auto body shop had a Kid’s Crafts Extravaganza. https://www.facebook.com/events/franklin-delaware-county-new-york/franklin-holiday-market-and-christmas-stroll/392802464725834/

This year, the self-guided tour of decorated homes was back, with one family displaying their extensive collection of Victorian decorations. There are some lovely old homes in Franklin.

My favorite part of the Franklin holiday celebrations, besides the library book sale, is the display of Christmas trees at the Railroad and Community Museum. The museum is a quietly remarkable thing all year long. Inside, there is a huge collection of memorabilia about our small town.

I’ve gone there to research the history of my house, and also to try to find out more about a wind storm in the 19th century that reputedly ended the town’s then-dominant industry, sheep farming. That must have been some wind storm. I picture sheep flying through the air and landing in a neighboring community, where they lived happily ever after.

The pride of the museum is an opulent, semi-restored Victorian honeymoon rail car. It’s a work in progress, as the patron who donated it died and the funds to complete it are still being raised. It may, in fact, be more charming because it’s not perfectly restored.

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A couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, my neighbor, Sue, creates remarkable displays of themed trees. Sue waves me away when I rave about her decorations, but I’ve seriously never seen anything like them. Last year among the trees was one decorated with books. Real books. It was lovely.

Each tree has a theme. I think there are other town residents who design the trees as well. They were all much better than anything I can create. But Sue’s stood out. Every tree that struck me as particularly unique turned out to be one of hers.

There is something about this town that has resonated with me in a way that nowhere else I’ve lived has done. I think it’s about scale. I feel embedded already. Our mayor, Tom, will be holding a holiday open house at his home. We got an invitation. During the holiday festival, Sidney the shop dog will be greeting everyone outside the antique shop where he works, while Neal, the man he owns, will probably sit inside and try to stay warm. The Franklin Garden Club’s barrels are already full of pine boughs and red branches, and I know that Diana, the artist who started the garden club, has checked to make sure everything looks just so. The Rotary Club, a lovely bunch of folks who meet once a month, share dinner and sing “God Bless America,” will have set up the annual display of Christmas trees on Main Street. Shana and Willem, the young couple who bought the huge house next to the park, will be out in the thick of things, where their little girl always wants to be. They’ll probably be caroling in the park, which their daughter has claimed as her own because it’s next door to their house.

The Franklin Farmer’s Market crowd, the folks from the newspaper, the Chamber, the artist group that meets for lunch every Tuesday, I’ll probably see them all. The other new people, the ones who opened the upscale antique, décor and bespoke fashion stores, will thrown open their doors. If we’re lucky, the owner of our new cafe will have the coffee pot on.

I am different here. Better. More relaxed, more confident. More open-minded.

This is a town that’s traditionally Republican. Most newcomers aren’t. And yet somehow, despite the hysterics I occasionally (often?) join in on on social media, I find that most local Republicans/Trump supporters here are nice people. Not just kind of nice. Really nice.

It’s mind-bending. Don’t tell me I’m deluded. I’m not. I don’t pretend to be okay with their political views. We disagree, very strongly. But we are neighbors first.

It feels like growth. And hope.

Franklin and I seem to fit. There are big personalities but they don’t seem overwhelming. There are quieter, more intense personalities, and space is made for them. Most of the people here seem to welcome newcomers who want to join in. There is diversity of race, religion, sexual orientation. Franklin is like the spaghetti sauce I was taught to make years ago; a little extra something is always fine – toss it in the pot. It’ll taste even better.

We’ve lived here a short time and we know enough people that it seems like a very good idea to throw a holiday open house this year and invite all the people we like. It’s going to be a crowd.

If it sounds like something out of It’s A Wonderful Life, that is because it is. It’s Bedford Falls on a very small scale, without, it seems, Mr. Potter.

And what could be more in the spirit of the holidays than that?

(first published in the Kingston and Woodstock Times/HudsonValleyOne)

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