Photo by Paula Combs
Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more… in Warrenton.
Warrenton is a very special place during the holidays. It has received awards from Southern Living, and been named several times in the Top 20 Events in the Southeast by the Southeast Tourism Society, and it’s easy to see why. The whole of Old Town is turned into a Christmas wonderland, with one of the central pieces being Gumdrop Square with Santa’s Secret Shop, and one of the primary activities being the Christmas Parade, which ushers in the Christmas season. The decorations are astounding, with decorated Christmas trees everywhere, wreaths and garlands and ribbons and ornaments…and lights…tons and tons of twinkling lights! Fun for children, of course, but fun and nostalgic for the adults as well, as everything is impeccably done. And let’s face it, when you’re an adult, the magic of Christmas is seeing your child’s face light up with wonder.
But where does all this magic come from? It comes from a large pool of volunteers from the whole community who pull off this amazing event every year, working hard, working together, and coordinating efforts. Lachelle Yoder, previous director of Gumdrop Square, said, “It really boggles the mind how many people are involved.” Charity Furness, the executive director for Experience Old Town Warrenton, said, “It’s a lot of work, and it takes a lot of people and a lot of community effort, but the result is worth it.” She added, “It’s really a year long planning process, and work on a daily basis from the beginning of August until the end of the year.” Gumdrop Square brings the community to Old Town Warrenton to experience the small town charm of our historic district and that is the mission of EOTW.
So what does it take to pull this off?
The people involved
Aside from Gumdrop Square, there are many other things in Warrenton that make Christmas season magical, so it’s not just the job of EOTW. Furness explained, “The town decorates the streets, the Rotary Club puts up the large tree on the courthouse steps, Sean Polster directs the Christmas Parade, Kelly Ann Richardson organizes the artisans and crafters, Lachelle and Tim Dingus at Drum ‘n Strum work on musical support for the carolers, and Bob Grant organizes the EOTW volunteers. Carter Nevill provides valuable insight from years past. There are just so many people involved.”
For Furness, the first order of business in early August is lining up the main guy…Santa Claus! There are seven Santas who rotate shifts at Gum Drop Square. Then the John Barton Payne building must be reserved—the library generously donates a large portion of that expense—permits to close the streets have to be applied for and approved by the town council, volunteers—about 70 of them—to be organized. Then there’s the entertainment to be arranged, which includes carolers, music, and dance performances.
The gifts for Santa’s Secret Shop are ordered and delivered in October. “If we can get them from the local merchants, we do. For instance, the ornaments are made at Earth, Glaze, and Fire, Latitudes Fair Trade is providing some of the items, and Voncanon General Store is ordering the candy canes. But we also need to keep things cost effective, so some gifts and supplies we purchase online,” said Furness. Once the presents for Santa’s Secret Shop have arrived, they are wrapped by volunteers all over the county. “Churches and different organizations have wrapping parties all over the place, it’s really cool,” said Yoder. “Sometimes they have them at wineries.”
Then, just before Thanksgiving, the real fun—and work—starts!
The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, the setup starts. All the decorations for Gum Drop Square are stored in the very crowded attic of the EOTW office on South Third Street. “We have Christmas trees, and lights, and tubs and tubs of ornaments, and garlands and wreaths and nutcrackers,” said Furness. Trustees from the jail help move all the decorations from there to the John Barton Payne Building; it takes about three trips to get it all moved. They help set up as much as possible, like with the bigger trees and the garlands, and then sponsors and volunteers come in. The local VFW, led by Tim Nosal, sets up all the trees and puts the lights on and makes sure everything is lit.
Then the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday after Thanksgiving is when the decorations go up. “We have people from the VFW, and school groups, and Families 4 Fauquier brings a lot of people, and we get everything decorated,” said Yoder. “We have a lot of people in that comparatively small room, and it gets crowded and hot and loud. But that’s ok, we don’t mind it because we know we’re making magic. We play Christmas Carols to get in the seasonal mood and serve pizza at midday.” One of the hardest parts, Yoder said, is the breakdown after the season is over. “We have trouble getting volunteers for that, it’s so close to Christmas and everyone is busy, and, let’s face it, it’s just not as much fun as setting up.”
The Christmas Parade
For Sean Polster, director of the Christmas Parade which takes place right before the first opening of Gum Drop Square, the planning is also a year long process. A firefighter by profession, Polster implements a system that is employed on his job to manage the workflow of organizing the parade. “We use what’s called the National Incident Management System. You have one person in charge, then the rest of the duties are broken down and delegated very clearly. Once this system is implemented, it really runs on cruise control,” he said. This year is the biggest parade yet, with 93 registered groups. Polster, who had been directing the parade since 2013, has between 12 and 15 “elves” every year, but it’s still logistically a very big feat getting everybody in and staged in order and ready to go in under an hour. Even so, the parade is important to Polster. “The parade is one of the things that makes Warrenton special, it’s the community. It’s the people that live here, it’s the people who work in our community, and those that spend time here that make it special. This is just another event that brings the community together and increases the quality of life,” he explained.
Does it get crazy before opening? You bet it does. Furness said, “It seems overwhelming, but a lot of people keep telling me not to worry, that it will come together…somehow, between all the people involved, it always does. Like the Grinch says, you can’t stop Christmas from coming!”
Every year, Santa arrives at the end of the Christmas Parade and ushers in the Christmas season, and immediately after that Gumdrop Square is open for business. It takes 12 volunteers to man the event: six teens and six adults. The teens act as “elves” and introduce the children to Santa and guide them through their Christmas shopping at Santa’s Secret Shop. The adults supervise, take the photographs, and do line control. That can be tricky, Furness said. “We want to keep the line moving, but we also don’t want to rush the kids with Santa. We do want a meaningful experience for the kids. After all, they’ve been waiting all year to talk to Santa.”
So how much money does it take to pull off Christmas in Warrenton? About $10,000, said Furness. “We have generous sponsors like Appleton Campbell, Cropp Metcalf and Middleburg Bank, and that covers the gifts and the wrapping paper and the decorations.
The Christmas Spirit
Yoder explained, “It’s just magical…last year Bob Grant asked me, ‘why do you do this?’ and I told him it’s because we’re making magic. When the little kids who come in, they sit on Santa’s lap…there have been times I’ve had to step out because I was getting tearful, because it’s just so spellbinding to them. It’s enchanting even for the adults. It’s so well done, it’s totally nostalgic.”
Christmas in Warrenton exists because of the generosity of sponsors, and the generosity of the volunteers with their time and talent. But it’s reciprocated by the community. Yoder said, “It’s the generosity of the people who come in that’s really special, the people who attend and bring their kids. We always sell ornaments and tickets, but we also have a donation box, just a box that says donations are welcome, and we’d find $100 bills in there. It’s that generosity at that level that makes you realize that people really care. The Christmas spirit really comes out in this town. People really appreciate what it stands for, and they support it.”
Gum Drop Square and Santa’s Secret Shop are open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays during December (until Santa’s final night on Dec. 21), On Fridays, Main Street is closed to traffic and the street is filled with artisans and crafters, carolers, performances, and food. There is even a beer and wine stop this year.