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Former mill town celebrates old-time way

By Lynn Rumley, Special to the Post

Cooleemee — Christmas was in the air as town residents and nearby neighbors kicked off the season Sunday with a “Celebration of Community, Faith & amp; Family.”

Cooleemee’s old-time Christmas event has been around since 1992, but the historic Zachary House can only legally squeeze in 99 revelers. So event organizers, Mayor John Chandler and Master Gardener JoAnn Lester, decided on the town’s first outdoor event — and the crowd doubled this year.

“It was such a warm crowd,” Chandler said. “Grandparents who grew up there came with their grown children and grandchildren. That’s what a real community is all about.”

It took volunteer Josh Renken two days to fill the 350 luminaries, many with handwritten messages remembering friends and loved ones. A team of teenagers took several hours to place and light them along the Zachary House’s Memorial Walkway, then down both sides of Church Street to Good Shepherd Episcopal Church and the new Mill Family Life Museum.

As volunteers plied the crowd on the patio with trays of steaming hot chocolate, the audience heard a moving reading of the Biblical Christmas story from Luke by Earl Lester.

A program of holiday music began with a performance by guitarist Jim Patton, followed by songs from the Cooleemee Community Chorus led by Regina Chandler. Later, the Davie County High School Saxophone Ensemble filled the air with festive tunes.

A reading of the “Night Before Christmas” by professional actor John Benzes delighted the crowd. Just as the line about Santa “going up the chimney with a bound” was spoken, a local fire truck arrived with the chubby old elf in person. Wide-eyed children followed him to the porch where hearty shouts of “Ho! Ho! Ho!” were interspersed with anxious requests for Christmas toys by the kids.

Warming themselves inside the Zachary House, members of the crowd enjoyed the wide array of cookies gathered by Helen Daywalt and her daughter Jessica, whose peanut butter and jelly cookies seemed to be the hit of the day. Eleven contestants in the annual Fudge Contest allowed voters lots of delicious calories. Helen Queen, who tried her hand at fudge making after 20 years, won first place.

Most of the crowd then took the one-block walk down the hill to open houses at Cooleemee’s oldest church and its newest museum in a mill house restored to 1934. Moving music by organist Jeannie Taylor filled the beautiful old church known for its striking woodwork and stained-glass windows. It was adorned with fresh greenery, its Advent purple-covered altar and Advent wreath, along with a very old nativity scene.

At the mill house, the simple Christmas decorations were striking in their contrast to today’s store-bought trees covered with glass balls and electric lights. A simple cedar was chopped by hand somewhere on mill company property and brought home to be decorated with a string of popcorn, a hand-colored paper chain, some hand-cut snowflakes and a cut pasteboard star sparkling with some glued-on, store-bought glitter.

Back in the mill house kitchen, the real Christmas celebration revealed itself. As if on Christmas Eve, the fresh coconut cake was finished along with several pies. Sausage canned in a blue jar sat on the table next to fresh eggs that would have come from the backyard were next to a number of canned vegetables ready for cooking on the wood stove nearby.

Then there were those once-a-year oranges that all the children looked forward to every December. A cured country ham sat on the cabinet counter ready for slicing. Such was the family Christmas feast.

“When you walk in the mill house, it takes you back so many years, and the tree is trimmed with the little things a family could come up with, it just reminds you that shopping and gifts are the lesser things we should experience at Christmas,” Mayor Chandler said. “Being with your family, your neighbors and remembering your faith — that’s the Christmas tradition we want to keep alive here in Cooleemee.”

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