Re-creating Rockwell

Iconic Communities, On the Road, Travel Destinations
on November 18, 2007

The country store’s doorbell jingles merrily as holiday shoppers shuffle to and fro. Children play in the street and dream of what Santa will bring. Couples stroll arm in arm past quaint shops. A red ’56 Mercury Montclair slowly pulls onto Main Street, a Christmas tree adorning its roof.

If this sounds like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, that’s because it is.

Since 1990, Stockbridge, Mass. (pop. 2,276), has held the Main Street at Christmas festival, highlighted on the final day by a re-creation of Rockwell’s famous painting, Home for Christmas. The image, which first was published in McCall’s magazine in 1967, depicts Rockwell’s beloved Stockbridge (the artist made his home there from 1953 until his death in 1978) right before Christmas. The scene, complete with families shopping, festively decorated storefronts and a blanket of freshly fallen snow, became an instant classic.

“Stockbridge has become the quintessential small-town Christmas setting,” says Linda Pero, curator of the town’s Norman Rockwell Museum, which displays Home for Christmas year-round.

Each year, during the first weekend in December, as many as 2,000 people visit Stockbridge to experience the festival and its Rockwell re-creation.

“It’s like stepping back in time,” says Don Lumpkins, 42, of Norwich, Conn., who, along with his wife, Julie, attended the festival for the first time last year. “We loved just walking up and down Main Street.”  The downtown section of Main Street is closed to traffic—modern automobiles anyway—for the re-creation of the painting, which takes place on Sunday afternoon, the last day of the three-day festival. Some 50 antique cars line the street, colorful store displays catch the eye, and locals and visitors alike delight in the season’s good cheer.

The celebration, scheduled Nov. 30 through Dec. 2, brings a holiday spirit to the town. “The festival is a wonderful hometown family activity,” says Barbara Zanetti, executive director of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce. “The adults really enjoy admiring the classic cars, but the events of the day, including a visit from Santa, really revolve around the children.”

In addition to the antique cars, another key element to the re-creation’s authenticity is that Main Street has changed little over the years. Many of the buildings and businesses depicted in Rockwell’s painting remain, including the public library, the bank and the antiques store.

The idea for the holiday festival grew out of a desire for local business owners to breathe life back into the town during what was a notoriously slow time of year. According to festival co-founder Carolyn Nejaime Jeffrey, the idea for bringing Rockwell’s painting to life was proposed during a planning session for the festival’s second year.  “The first year went well, but we wanted to add some pizzazz to the festival, and then someone from the Rockwell Museum suggested the re-creation,” Jeffrey says. “It has become the cornerstone of the festival.”

It may be hard to conceive of improving upon Rockwell’s painting, but the Stockbridge event does just that. Lurking on the right edge of the Home for Christmas painting stands the grand, yet gloomy Red Lion Inn. A fixture of the Stockbridge landscape for more than two centuries, the inn was closed during the winter when Rockwell was working on the painting. Saved from the wrecking ball in the late 1960s, the historic inn underwent renovations, and today accommodates visitors attending the festival.

While re-creation of the Rockwell painting remains the festival’s focal point, it is by no means Stockbridge’s only holiday offering. On the second day of the festival, visitors can tour the town’s many historic homes and inns, go caroling or attend a holiday concert.

Still, the re-creation resonates most deeply with visitors. There is a palpable sense of disappointment as Main Street reopens to traffic, the vintage cars are driven away and the trip back in time comes to an end.

Yet, as Jeffrey points out, for many visitors the Stockbridge festival is a beginning. “For a lot of the people who have been coming back year after year, this event kicks off their holiday season.”

Sean Conneely is a writer in Red Feather Lakes, Colo.