A Visit to Christmas Town U.S.A.

Featured Article, Festivals, Hometown Heroes, On the Road, Seasonal, Travel Destinations
on December 6, 2013
Nell Redmond

Each December since 1950, children in McAdenville, North Carolina, have come together to drag a Yule log through town, passing downtown shops and houses aglow in green, red and white holiday lights and transforming the quaint mill town into Christmas Town U.S.A. Cheered by townspeople and visitors, the children end their four-block trek at Legacy Park, where the log is burned in an outdoor fire pit, followed by a community celebration featuring hot chocolate, popcorn, the singing of Christmas carols, and a visit by Santa Claus.

The event is filled with traditions, symbolism and good-natured superstitions: Pulling the sled brings good luck all year. The honor of lighting the log is given to a different resident each year. The fire is a reminder of the light of Jesus Christ, whose birth is celebrated by Christians at Christmas.

The festivities were started by Catherine and William Pharr, who helped purchase the town’s textile mill in 1939 and became McAdenville’s largest employers. The new owners realized their workers had little money to spend during the holidays, so they sought to organize a no-frills community gathering to kindle the Christmas spirit.

“My parents loved England and its Christmas traditions,” recalls the Pharrs’ daughter, Catherine Ann Carstarphen. “During one of their trips there in the late 1940s, they attended a Yule log celebration and decided to bring the tradition back to McAdenville.”

Carstarphen was a teenager when McAdenville’s first Yule log was lit. Her family still owns the mill, renamed Pharr Yarns, which employs 1,500 workers. Now 80, she oversees the festivities each year.

Adding to McAdenville’s holiday spirit are thousands of twinkling lights illuminating the branches of the tallest trees and smallest evergreens, as well as homes, businesses, churches and Nativity displays.

The lights began to illuminate McAdenville in 1956 when its Men’s Club decorated trees in front of the community center. William Pharr offered to pay for decorations, and Catherine Pharr chose red, green and white as the colors. Now installed by volunteers, the month-long lights display annually draws a half-million visitors who slowly drive the 1.3-mile loop through town and past McAdenville Lake.

“The company started [Christmas Town], but the townspeople embraced it, and that’s what makes it work,” says Catherine Ann’s husband, J.M. “Bip” Carstarphen, 80, president and chairman of Pharr Yarns.

The town’s association with light dates back almost to its 1881 founding by mill owner Rufus Yancey McAden. In 1884, McAden hired inventor Thomas Edison to install one of the world’s first electric generators to light up the factory floor. The electric display drew hundreds of people to McAdenville to see the glow.

Today, the glow of Christmas Town makes McAdenville an annual destination.

“This holiday tradition was the gift that grandfather and my grandmother wanted to give to the town,” Catherine Ann says. “I could see the happiness in their faces each year and, for me, it has been a good lesson in the value of giving.”