Lights, Camera, Memories
Holiday traditions and the mesmerizing lights of Carthage, Missouri never fail to bring out the child in all of us
By Christine Smith
One thing I’ve learned as a mom is that time passes quickly; one moment my children are toddling toward me as they take their first steps, and the next moment they’re jumping out of the car to greet their friends at school without so much as a goodbye.
But there comes a time each year when I can press pause on the time machine: Christmas. By honoring our family’s holiday traditions, I’m able to witness my daughters linger in that heavenly state of childlike innocence and wonder just a little bit longer.
One of our holiday traditions is touring the Christmas light displays in Carthage, Missouri, a town that transforms into an enchanting Christmas village each December. As I drive into town with our daughters in the back seat, I’m giddy to see what this year has in store for us.
“Look, Mommy! I’m Princess Lolly!” my five-year-old, Molly, exclaims as she runs up to an oversized red-and-white striped lollipop and assumes her most regal pose. Meanwhile, my tween, Carrie, jokes around by pretending to bite off the hand of a giant gingerbread man. Candyland has come to life here inside the Visitors Center at the Precious Moments Chapel, and my kids are thrilled to be immersed in a life-sized version of one of their favorite games.
This Precious Moments complex was built by Sam Butcher, the artist who created the teardrop-eyed Precious Moments figurines that became popular when I was a child. I love seeing my girls enjoying something I did when I was their age. During the holidays, the complex is open until 8:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Having extended hours allows visitors like us the opportunity to walk through the grounds behind the Visitors Center after dark, admiring the shimmering lights as they create a radiant pathway leading us to the chapel.
As we enter the chapel, a reverent silence comes over us. Directly in front of us is a colossal floor-to-ceiling mural featuring the Precious Moments characters dressed as angels. This is Hallelujah Square, which Butcher painted to represent heaven as seen through the eyes of a child. The joyful expressions on these cherubic figures convey messages of hope and peace, filling us with the spirit of the holiday. I turn to look at my girls and see that childlike wonder I never want them to lose.
Lights Steal the Show
We return to the car, and take our modern-day sleigh through the enchanting streets of this Victorian town.
We arrive at our destination, about ten minutes north of Carthage, at Mt. Moriah United Methodist Church. Instead of going inside the quaint stone church, we stay in our warm car for the outdoor show.
Luckily, no one had to brave the frigid temperatures for this performance starring the glistening lights. More than 70,000 lights are synchronized to dance along to the music of six songs in this 12-minute show. Small, bell-shaped trees magically illuminate, alternating with a star-topped tree and waves of dancing light, creating an effervescent symphony.
Tonight’s electronic variety show features the jazzy “Winter Wonderland,” the majestic “Carol of the Bells,” and the enchanting “Polar Express” theme. I sneak a look at my girls and am glad to see them thoroughly engrossed.
Fit for a Princess
When we arrive back in Carthage at the town square, my youngest daughter asks, “Is that a castle?” She’s pointing to the massive stone structure in the middle of the square as its turrets gleam with light. It really does look like a fairytale castle, but it’s not. It’s the Jasper County Courthouse, one of the most-photographed structures in the state of Missouri.
I think to myself that when a building one would normally visit to pay property taxes can transform into a princess’ castle—that’s pure holiday magic.
As we make our way south on Grand Street, we drive slowly so we can admire the stately Victorian homes with their intricate architectural gingerbread highlighted by merry red bows, fluffy garland, and sparkling lights. They create an old-fashioned Christmas scene, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a group of nineteenth-century carolers singing on one of their porches.
We arrive at the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, a Catholic monastery that hosts the Way of Salvation Driving Lights Tour every year Thursdays thru Sundays, Thanksgiving thru Christmas. I turn off the car’s headlights and tune the radio to the monastery’s station, which is playing jubilant songs of the season.
Peeking through the moonroof as we enter the tunnel of lights we see flashes of red, green, and gold dancing above us like a Christmas rainbow. As we drive along, the biblical stories behind the electro-art sculpture scenes come to life: an animated whale jumps over Noah, and Moses points toward the darkened roadway lined with rows of red lights on both sides, representing the parted Red Sea.
The dazzling lights reflect off the car windows, and my girls press their faces against the glass, their wide eyes resembling those of the Precious Moments children.
We pause in front of the nativity scene, enjoying a moment of adoration and reflection. The world is still, and I savor the silent bliss.
Tomorrow we will get back to hustle and bustle of our regular lives, but tonight we’ve escaped to a magical place where time has stood still. I know these holiday traditions and memories we’ve created will always connect us with not only each other, but also our inner child for many years to come.