- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

George: I thought you’d go back to New York like Sam and Angie and the rest of them.

Mary: Oh, oh, I worked there a couple of vacations. But…I don’t know… I, I guess I was homesick.

George: Homesick? For Bedford Falls?

Mary: Yes, and my family and… oh, everything.

From ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ RKO Radio Pictures, 1946

Bedford Falls may be the quintessential, if mythic, small town, but all over the Washington area you’ll find a bit of Bedford Falls. And just in time for Christmas, the region’s small towns have decked themselves out into large-scale versions of those winter villages that folks like to put up this time of year.

Forget the strip malls and the fast-food palaces on the bypass. Turn off the highway and head for any “Main Street,” where the grand old mansions of a bygone age point the way to town. Here the businesses have been around for a while, the banks have unfamiliar names, and life slows down long enough to savor — all of which make a small-town Christmas something special.

Easton, on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, likes to call itself “the eighth best small town in America,” and its Christmas celebrations are fairly typical.

Like many small towns, Easton’s Christmas festivities took a hiatus when the suburbs started opening up. Longtime businesses suffered, taking off for the nether regions or closing up altogether. Now new businesses have moved into old storefronts, bringing an interesting mix of antiques, craft, coffee shops and one-of-a-kind shops for the curious.

And what better way to signal the change than with a traditional Christmas parade?

In Easton, the folks start gathering early for the parade held in early December. They huddle in the parking lot of the local paint store or under the pools of light that splay out from the street lamps along Dover Street.

Back by the old train station, floats bedecked with lights and ribbons arrive with participants already singing. A few hardy onlookers even stake out choice viewing areas along the parade route with lawn chairs, just like they would on Memorial or Independence Day.

But it’s dark and it’s freezing, the temperature dropping almost as fast as the notes from the flatbed hauling the Easton Elementary School band.

“It’s going to start getting exciting,” says Kendra Gibson, 12, who has found herself a place just across the street from Santa. “When that happens, you don’t get cold any more.”

Nine-year-old Rebecca Smith, whose parents moved to Easton from Canton, Ohio, is an angel in this year’s parade, albeit an angel wearing three layers of clothing.

“I’ve been in the parade since I was two years old,” says the White Marsh Elementary School student, whose excitement is transparent; it’s the first year she gets to walk by herself.

Rebecca and the other marchers will end up downtown, a unique mix of Colonial, Federal, and Victorian architecture, with a few art deco touches thrown in for good measure. You won’t find Bedford Falls’ Gower Drugs here, but you will find Hill’s Pharmacy, in business for more than 70 years.

At the Historical Society of Talbot County down the street, they’re featuring an exhibit of life in the ‘50s, complete with poodle skirts, Perry Como memorabilia and an aluminum Christmas tree.

Strollers can also check out the courthouse building, which dates from 1712 and is still in use today. One of Easton’s two Christmas trees is in front.

Easton’s revived Christmas parade starts on the east end of town, which boasts its own Christmas tree.

“We wanted to bring a positive light to the community,” says Joyce De Laurentis, a transplanted Bostonian who is the president and founding member of the East End Neighborhood Association.

Judging by the response to the Easton Elementary School band, which finally gets to strut down Dover Street to the applause of friends and relatives, it’s working.

“It’s just getting better and better,” says Nancy Eason, who brought grandchildren Lauren, 6, and Meredith Rose, 7, to watch. “That’s Easton and the parade.”

• • •

Over in Warrenton in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, the Christmas festivities kicked off in early December with events designed to pull friends, neighbors, and more than a few strangers back to the old downtown. Santa rolls in on a wagon drawn by two spirited Belgian horses.

Warrenton is horse country, and there’s a certain high-end feel to the shops here, earning it the sobriquet “Little Georgetown.” There are boutiques aplenty, antique stores, and even a gourmet shop specializing in custom gift baskets and fine wines.

But the friendliness isn’t forced and locals and visitors can shoot the breeze over at the Whistle Stop eatery, a converted drugstore soda fountain.

Right now, pride of placegoes to the town’s Christmas tree, set up by volunteers in front of the 1893 Fauquier County courthouse.

“There’s a sense of occasion here for the holidays,” says Mary Prince, the county’s tourism coordinator. “It’s very much a hometown.”

But Warrenton is a hometown with an illustrious pedigree. You don’t have to stroll too far up Main Street for a slice of the past. The Marquis de Lafayette visited the Warren Green Hotel in 1825 during his national tour. Wallis Simpson, the future Duchess of Windsor, stayed there in 1927 to establish residency while she was Wallis Warfield and awaiting her first divorce.

Many homes and churches were used as field hospitals during the Civil War. John Mosby, the Confederacy’s “Grey Ghost,” lived here, although Warrenton residents ran him out of town after he voted for Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 presidential election.

And for Christmas, everybody flocks downtown. More than 1,000 people turned out Dec. 3 for the Festival of Lights, featuring carolers, choirs, and a cold but earnest high school band.

“We’re very family oriented,” says Mrs. Prince.

The Friday and Saturday night December extravaganzas wind down in time for folks to spend a quiet evening at home on Christmas Eve, but are back with a vengeance in time for First Night Warrenton on Dec. 31. The evening will feature musical and theatrical performances organized by the Bluemont Music Festival.

“I love the whole thing,” says Pamela Wise, a Warrenton native who decided to check out the town’s festivities for the very first time this year and brought her son, Isaiah, 2, along. “We’ll definitely come back again before the New Year.”

• • •

Some small towns, like Easton and Warrenton, are set down in stretches of relatively undeveloped countryside. To get to others, like Frederick, nestled in the shadow of Catoctin Mountain, you’ll have to drive through that line of strip malls and box stores that mark the American landscape.

Some might not even consider Frederick a small town. It is, after all, the second largest city in Maryland. But there is something about Frederick that puts you in mind of the Bedford Falls that Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey was trying so hard to escape from.

Thousands of tiny white lights sparkle on the trees that line Market Street on the way downtown. Behind thick glass windows of the old brick row houses, candles shine in nearly every window, and Christmas trees invite the driver to slow down.

By the time you get to the town’s heart at the intersection with Patrick Street, you wouldn’t be surprised to see George Bailey headed for the Mercantile or the Farmer’s and Mechanics Bank.

These days, everybody comes together for Frosty Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when the downtown merchants put up their holiday decorations and the locals get a chance to strut their stuff. It’s the beginning of a season of events that includes caroling, a dance, and historic house tours.

Even with the carolers elsewhere and the instruments packed up, Frederick bustles with activity. At the Market Street Cafe you can pick up a used book, pause for a cup of coffee, or enjoy some homemade ice cream.

Wastler’s Barbershop features a traditional barber pole and busy chairs filled with regulars. The “mighty Wurlitzer” still whirls on occasion over at the Weinberg Center for the Arts, while antique and specialty shops make any visit an opportunity.

Most days, a lot of folks head for the Candy Kitchen, an old-time candy store that has been in business for 50 years, the last 15 of them in Frederick. It’s owned by the Leo family, who came from Greece about a century ago and started out by selling nuts from a pushcart in Baltimore. Now they offer caramels, cremes, and nuts, along with high-end truffles, teas, coffees, and other gourmet goodies.

“People like the candy they remember from their childhood,” says Nancy Whitmore, a local author and chair of Frederick’s Frosty Friday celebration, who has been working at the Candy Kitchen for the last seven years. She’s lived in Frederick for 40, though, and apparently the years have paid off. More times than not, Mrs. Whitmore is able to greet by name the person heading for the buttercreams or the fudge in the back room.

Most folks seem just as happy to greet Mrs. Whitmore as she is to greet them — particularly when she’s dishing out the buttercreams.

• • •

Even fewer changes have come to Westminster in largely rural Carroll County. Drive toward town along Route 27 and you’ll pass horse and cattle farms, and even an advertisement for Mail Pouch tobacco painted on the side of an old barn.

Once inside the town limits, you’ll find sights that would sit well in Bedford Falls; the town library is still on Main Street, and the Christmas tree rises beside the railroad tracks that cut the street in half. Up the hill to the west is McDaniel College.

To the east is the Carroll County Historical Society with its collection of toy trains, china dolls, and tall-case clocks.

J.E.B. Stuart spent some time here while on his way to Gettysburg in late June of 1863. Too much time, in fact. He was held up by a detachment of Delaware cavalry that prevented him from reinforcing Robert E. Lee in time to turn the tide of the battle.

Today’s downtown features a collection of shops and services with which any Bedford Falls resident would have been familiar. There’s the Heinz Bakery, the 1838 County Courthouse, and the New Windsor State Bank, in business in Carroll County for more than 70 years.

Westminster’s Christmas lights shine brightly long after most downtown businesses have closed for the evening. Couples who stroll past the town Christmas tree by the railroad tracks or peer into shop windows seem hushed, reverent almost.

So perhaps it’s fitting that in Westminster, the oldest surviving business is a florist, ready with roses for the season. And if a few petals should drop off, well, you can always put them in your pocket.

Especially if you’re in a small town.

Where to find good times in small towns

Looking to find your own version of Bedford Falls for Christmas? Here’s a guide to what’s going on in some of the area’s small towns.

Bowie

This historic town in close-in Prince George’s County began as a small railroad stop. In spite of its being the fourth largest city in the state, Bowie strives to maintain a small-town feel. The city operates Belair Mansion, the Belair Stable Museum and the Bowie Railroad Station and Huntington Museum. With the Radio History Society, it maintains the Radio and Television Museum.

• 12207 Tulip Grove Drive. The Georgian plantation house, built circa 1745, was the home of Samuel Ogle, provincial governor of Maryland, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Tea is served 4 p.m. Dec. 28-30. Reservations required. Contact Pam Williams at 301/809-3089 or see www.cityofbowie .org/comserv/museums.htm.

Cumberland

The western terminus of the C&O; Canal, this center of railroading and manufacturing in Allegany County has preserved a historic Victorian downtown that includes shops, boutiques and cafes. Top attractions include the Canal Place Heritage Area and the Western Maryland Railway Station there. See www.downtowncumberland.com.

• Tea at Gordon-Roberts House: 218 Washington St. The late-19th-century house in the town’s historic district is decorated for Christmas and offers a special New Year’s Tea social 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Dec. 31. Reservations required. Tours of the house on the hour 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. 301/777-8678 or www.history house.allconet.org.

Easton

Easton is about 12 miles south of Wye Mills on Route 50. Most shops close early here, although the restaurants stay open later. For information on Easton events, see www.east onmd.org.

• Talbot County All-Stars: Top bands from the Eastern Shore — Guthrie Matthews with Big Bang Method, Johnny Bling and Jordan Page. The Historic Avalon Theatre, 40 E. Dover St. 7 p.m. Dec. 23. $10. 410/822-0345, 410/822-7299 or www.avalontheatre.com. This 400-seat house, a movie and vaudeville theater built in 1921, was restored to its original art-deco style in the 1980s.

• First Night Talbot: A family-oriented, alcohol-free community New Year’s Eve festival, with activities at the Academy Art Museum, the Avalon Theatre, Christ Church, the Historical Society auditorium, Town Hall and the Waterfowl Festival building. 5 p.m.-midnight Dec. 31. $8 adults, $4 per child in advance; or $10 adults, $5 per child on Dec. 31. Call Easton Resource Center at 410/820-8822 or see www.easternshore.com/first nighttalbot.

Frederick

Frederick is less than one hour from Washington off I-70. For information see www.freder icktourism.org.

• Candlelight tour of historic houses of worship: 4-9 p.m. Dec. 26. Self-guided tour of 13 churches and Beth Sholom synagogue features vocal and instrumental performances and a carillon recital in Baker Park. Free and open to the public. 800/999-3613, 301/228-2888 or www.frederick tourism.org/pdfs/church_tour_04.pdf.

• Holiday carriage rides: 5:30-8:30 p.m. Dec. 26. Pre-registration is recommended. 301/694-1492 or www.freder icktourism.org.

Warrenton

Warrenton, on Route 211 in Fauquier County, is about 50 miles from Washington. For information on Warrenton events call the Warrenton-Fauquier County Visitor Center at 540/347-4414 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or see www.vis itwarrenton.com.

• First Night Warrenton: A family-oriented, alcohol-free community New Year’s Eve festival in the center of town. Entertainment is coordinated by the Bluemont Concert Series. 7 p.m.-midnight Dec. 31. More than 50 performances — jazz, classical music, puppet shows, bluegrass, folk music, magicians — at more than 10 indoor locations 7-11:45 p.m. Grand Illumination at the Old Courthouse: 11:45 p.m.-midnight. $8 adults, $5 seniors and children under 12; no charge for toddlers under 2. See also www.bluemont.org/firstnight-Warren ton_04.

Westminster

In historic Westminster on Route 27, the old movie theater is still open and features films and live entertainment.

• Carroll County Arts Center: “Pete’s Dragon,” the 1977 family movie fantasy. 2 p.m. Dec. 28. $5 adults, $4 seniors, children under 12 and Arts Council members. See www.carr.org/arts/comingat tractions.HTM.

• Walking tours: Tours of Westminster’s various historic districts are available at the Carroll County Visitor Center, 210 East Main St. 800/272-1933 or http://tourism .carr.org

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