Taffy pulls instead of video games is how Shirley Dougherty characterizes Old Tyme Christmas in Harpers Ferry. Weary of the hectic pace and the commercialism of Christmas, Dougherty and some friends decided 12 years ago to recreate "Christmas past" in the 19th-century village they call home.
This weekend, the air in Harpers Ferry will once again be pungent with the cedar and spices of the swags and wreaths adorning every lamp post, stair rail and shop window. Over the low roar of the Potomac River passing through the gorge, the sounds of children's carols, 19th-century handbells and flute music will float. Everyone's invited, and thousands come -- from as far away as California and Florida
"Old Tyme Christmas is a delightful time," says Neal Gilkey, whose shop window displays a sleigh, reindeer and Santa Claus that once adorned President Monroe's home. "But the nicest part is when they light the yule log every evening and then come up the street ringing handbells and lighting candles in the shops as they go along." According to tradition, Christmas celebrations may last as long as the yule flame endures. In Harpers Ferry, the yule log is big.
After the lighting ceremony, a concert of Christmas music is held nightly in St. Peter's Catholic church, followed by a live Nativity scene at the bottom of the candlelit stone steps. After a lapse of several years, there'll be live animals. "We're going to use Wayne and Diane Tucker's mule, Molly, because we can't get a donkey," says Dougherty. The Tuckers' daughter, Dawn, will play the part of a shepherd so she can keep Molly from wandering off.
For a week, Dougherty keeps several pots filled with 135 pounds of taffy simmering on the back of her stove for what she claims is "the world's largest taffy pull," to be held on Saturday at 11. "The town really sticks together after the taffy pull," laughs Steve Bettinger.
"We were donated lots of peanuts this year, so there'll be lots of things to do with peanuts," adds Barbara Bettinger, "including a peanut toss and a peanut roll." Children under eight are invited to try their hands at bringing down a pi?nata on Saturday at 3, and hayrides for all ages start at 1.
The Harpers Ferry-Bolivar Merchants Association, which sponsors the event, credits the townspeople's resourcefulness largely to Elizabeth Cavalier's memories of Christmases in Harpers Ferry 70 years ago.
According to Mrs. Cavalier, a penny doll or oranges and bananas shipped express from Baltimore were the luxuries of an early-in-the-century Christmas, although she recalled that some people had a hard time learning to like bananas: "Those skins were awfully tough to chew."
Bananas are less troublesome than in those days, but otherwise, Christmastime in Harpers Ferry is much the same.