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The Night Before Christmas

The Night Before Christmas
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This Christmas Eve, as we do every year, my family will enjoy a meal and some early presents with my parents and siblings an hour and a half south of where we live in New Hampshire’s Upper Valley. On the way home, we’ll put on Christmas music (Ursula and Virgil will be too excited to sleep) and head north out of the Monadnock region on Route 12. We’ll cross over the Connecticut River outside the village of Westminster, Vermont. And there we’ll pause.

My wife and I will worry about the time–elves’ work inevitably left to do and all that–but we’ll turn left, anyway, and head south on Route 5. Climbing the long hill into the village of Westminster, we’ll pass the first of the luminarias lining both sides of Main Street. We’ll slow the car and turn off the headlights and marvel, again, at the sight of the lights twinkling as far into the distance as we can see. We’ll roll slowly past white Colonials and farmhouses, dark at that late hour behind hundreds and hundreds of glowing paper bags. We’ll have the road to ourselves and–if it’s cold and clear and black, as it was last year–stars will wheel above us, mirroring the shimmer on the ground, and the night will feel magical.

Before last year, I’d accepted Westminster’s simple light show as one last, anonymous present on Christmas Eve. The “anonymous” part was easy to believe: In more than a dozen years of making this little detour, we’d never seen a creature stirring. But last year I looked behind the scenes, to see what it takes to create such a generous public display of beauty.

We left early for Christmas Eve dinner and swung through Westminster during the daylight, just as volunteers were lighting the luminarias. I talked with Addie Terrell, a 15-year-old with a shy smile, in front of her house just south of the fire station. Her mom and dad were out there helping, as well.

“We moved here from Connecticut in 2000,” she told me, “and starting that next year, we’ve helped every time.” Along with her mom and dad and her brother’s girlfriend, Addie had joined “a whole bunch” of people at the Westminster firehouse the night before to put the sand and candles into white paper bags. I’d learn some of the details later from Diane Bazin and Chris Hackett, the team that has organized the luminaria display for the past 10 years. It had taken 32 volunteers an hour to prepare 1,296 luminarias and load them onto borrowed flatbed trailers.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, a firetruck with lights flashing had pulled one trailer, and Diane Bazin, with her husband’s truck, had pulled a second one, each with a small group of volunteers hopping on and off to place the luminarias along a one-mile stretch of Route 5 and a couple of side streets. That, too, had taken just an hour. “They’ve really got it down to a science now,” Ginger Cook told me later. Her parents had started the town tradition back in the mid-1980s, simply because they thought it would be a nice thing for the community.

I left Addie, then strolled along Main Street. I saw people up and down the village walking out to the ends of their driveways and lighting the luminarias in front of their houses. Neighbors chatted with neighbors and waved to one another across the street before disappearing back inside. In a couple of hours, residents would gather for a Christmas Eve service at the Congregational Church, then head out onto Main Street. By then, the luminarias would be glowing brightly. And an unusual, small, sporadic parade would have begun: of cars with their headlights off, streaming slowly through the village at five miles per hour. Some would be making this drive for the fifth or tenth or twentieth time. A surprising number would carry out-of-state plates. Many would have gone out of their way to be here. All of them would be attracted to a town’s quiet ritual, bringing light to the darkest time of the year–and adding a little wonder to our holiday.

Westminster Village is located on Route 5 in southeastern Vermont. To get there from the north or south, take exit 5 off Interstate 91; turn east on Westminster Street (following signs for Walpole, NH), then right on Route 5, and proceed south about two miles. To see the luminaria display, arrive anytime after dark on December 24.

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