Parade, other Smithfield Christmas traditions evolve
Published 3:50 pm Tuesday, December 7, 2021
Traditions die hard, but some do die. Those traditions that survive are usually ones that can evolve and thus remain relevant as the times change.
Here in Smithfield, numerous Christmas traditions have generally fallen into the latter category. They have evolved and thus have survived, sometimes even thrived. Those residents of whom it might be said are in our glorious senior years remember our small-town traditions from the days when we were indeed a small town, and we have watched as they — and the town — have evolved.
One of the most popular local traditions is the Christmas Parade, which will play out beginning at 10:30 this Saturday morning on Main and Grace streets.
The Smithfield Jaycees (one of those traditions that didn’t survive) sponsored the Christmas Parade for many years. Back then, it was strictly a small-town event, much smaller than the parades of today, but a lot of fun.
It always included some homemade floats, including the Jaycees entry — a corn liquor “still” complete with Jaycees playing their roles as hillbillies who had spent too much time sipping their own product.
The parades also came and went — as did volunteers — and one year, it got so small that it consisted of a police car and a mule-drawn sulky bearing Santa Claus under a clear plastic umbrella to fend off a driving rain.
Today, the parade is one of the town’s premier local events. It regularly draws well over a thousand viewers and includes stiff competition among dozens of floats, dancing units and bands.
Rarely does a Christmas pass that someone doesn’t wax sentimental about the brightly colored overhead lights that once stretched across Main and North Church streets. The Jaycees (boy, do we miss that young volunteer organization) took responsibility for stringing the lights every year.
For many years, they had the use of an enclosed Battery Park Fish and Oyster Co. truck, which was just the right height to serve as a rolling platform from which light strings were fed from one side of the street to the other. (Fish and Oyster Co. owner O.A. Spady was a Jaycee himself, as were many young businessmen back then.) On a Sunday in early December, the truck would be seen easing along the street with Jaycees atop it fastening lights to utility poles.
Once they were in place, they were the basis for a second tradition — a trip to see the lights. Families from throughout Isle of Wight and Surry would include a ride through town with kids in the backseat every year until the kids were too old to care.
The refurbishing of Main Street ended the overhead lights, as there were no longer utility poles that could be used as anchors for the strings.
The tradition of town lights lives on, however, with lovely strings of garland and lights decorating street light poles.
A town tree
Like many — perhaps most — communities, Smithfield has had a town Christmas tree ever since there were electric lights to brighten one. A half-century ago, and up until 1991, the “official” tree was a fir planted on Institute Street next to the Town Hall. Every December, the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department would pull its trucks out of the station, then located in the Town Hall, and host a community songfest prior to the tree lighting just outside.
Non-native trees often don’t like their adoptive homes, and the fir grew rapidly, then its branches sagged until it looked quite tired of its role. There followed a spat over whether to light that tree or a new one (also non-native) in Hayden’s Lane. For a couple of years, Hayden’s Lane seemed to have won, but then, that tree died and The Smithfield Times began hosting a tree on its front lawn, where summer concerts were also becoming a tradition. Native red cedars were used for a few years, then trees were purchased, and finally, the town planted a tree near the Veteran’s Memorial at the Smithfield Center property. That tree also died.
The town has now returned to the lot in front of the paper, which is now public land, and there it erects a handsome artificial tree each year. Talk about an evolving tradition!
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.