Christmases past and present: Chattanooga holiday traditions that stand the test of time

Left: EPB archive photo / The first EPB Christmas window display in downtown Chattanooga in 1941  Right: Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / The annual EPB Christmas window display downtown in 2022
Left: EPB archive photo / The first EPB Christmas window display in downtown Chattanooga in 1941 Right: Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / The annual EPB Christmas window display downtown in 2022

What traditions are linked with your Christmas memories — the events that signal that Christmas is here?

For many, that mindset starts in a church pew during a Christmas Eve service lit by candlelight. For others, it's reminiscing over childhood memories of finding your heart's desire under the tree — after waking Mom and Dad up before the crack of dawn to see what Santa had brought. Is it caroling with friends? Sitting down to a meal surrounded by those you love most?

Possibly, it's an annual outing your family made to see light displays, lighted boats gliding down the Tennessee River or seasonal songs performed by local choirs.

Following are five events that have become an integral part of Christmas in Chattanooga.

  photo  Staff file photo / Samuel Patton views EPBs holiday window display in 2010.
 
 


City Sidewalks, Dressed in Holiday Style

You can't talk about Christmas traditions in Chattanooga without remembering downtown holiday displays and EPB's annual Christmas windows. For baby boomers especially, Christmas and downtown windows are synonymous.

Downtown Chattanooga was magical in its 1950s-'60s holiday finery. Glittering tinsel garlands were swagged across Market and Broad streets. Wreaths adorned light poles. Storefront windows (EPB, Miller Brothers, Loveman's, in particular) caused shoppers to stop and admire their elaborate holiday scenes. These vignettes might range from whimsical delights of Santa and his elves assembling toys in the workshop to elegant winter snow scenes in white and gold.

  photo  EPB archive photo / Market Street in downtown Chattanooga in 1939
 
 


"We always went downtown to see the windows every Christmas with the whole family — aunts, cousins and whoever else wanted to tag along. Mom always wanted us to dress up," recalls Debi West Higdon Grant, a UTC alum now living in Texas.

"We always went downtown for the big unveiling of the windows," agrees Ooltewah resident Cindy Lowery. "We went almost weekly during the whole season. Great memories!"

These window decorations dwindled by the late 1970s as shoppers migrated to suburban malls. Only EPB has continued to present its holiday windows annually since 1941.

"Early EPB windows focused on promoting the use of electricity and electric appliances to customers, since power was still relatively new to the Tennessee Valley," says Sophie Moore, EPB public relations specialist. "A promotion for war bonds during the holiday season in the early 1940s eventually evolved into the present-day EPB holiday windows."

Windows are designed and built by EPB employees beginning in August. In recent years, they have been joined by STEM School students.

"Students work in teams to brainstorm ideas, develop prototypes and then build the final product. EPB volunteers provide feedback and necessary materials and collaborate with the students throughout the entire process," Moore explains.

This year's theme is an underwater wonderland, "Under the Sea."

EPB Holiday Windows:

EPB Office, 10 W. MLK Blvd.

Nightly

Free

  photo  EPB archive photo / The Electric Power Boards window display team builds the annual presentation in 1964.
 
 


O Christmas Tree

The Chattanooga Boys Choir (CBC) marked its 60th consecutive Christmas concert last December. And although the setting was different, the pure sound and entertaining performance of the young choristers was just as Chattanoogans have come to expect.

In 1962, the CBC introduced its Singing Christmas Tree in The Tivoli Theatre to Chattanooga — and the program quickly became a holiday favorite. The choristers stood on multiple tiers of a 25-foot-high metal tree frame assembled by dads and decorated by mothers.

The program included sacred and secular holiday music by the choir as well as performances by guest artists. Guests ranged from the McCallie School Handbells and Ballet Tennessee to UTC singers and Chattanooga Youth Symphony.

"My family always enjoyed going to the Singing Christmas Tree," says local resident Margaret Beckler Frazier. "We would get dressed up, go see the Christmas windows downtown and then have a special treat eating at Fehn's or Town & Country restaurants."

Not even the 2020 Covid pandemic stopped the CBC from presenting its holiday concert.

"During the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the Chattanooga Boys Choir prepared an online streamed performance for its holiday offering that was filmed in the concourse of Finley Stadium, with musical guests from local schools and the Chattanooga Choral Society for the Preservation of African-American Song," says CBC Director Vincent Oakes.

Although renovation of the Tivoli has uprooted the Siging Tree for now, Oakes says that the CBC is continuing its annual winter concert in First Baptist Church. Earlier this month, the Chattanooga Boys Choir was joined by Chattanooga Youth Symphony, the Metropolitan Bells and the Trembling Troubadors — a therapeutic choir for those living with Parkinson's disease that is a part of UTC's music therapy program.

Entitled "HOPE for the Holidays," the event featured several pieces selected around the theme of hope during this holiday season.

Singing Christmas Tree:

First Baptist Church of Chattanooga, 401 Gateway Ave.

Chattanoogaboyschoir.org

  photo  Staff file photo / The 52nd annual Chattanooga Boys Choir Singing Christmas Tree in 2014
 
 


Bah! Humbug!

Not every arts organization can boast of marking a centennial, but the Chattanooga Theatre Centre is among those that can.

When the theater organized as Chattanooga Little Theatre (CLT) in 1923, it presented two shows its first season. A season subscription was $10.

Now patrons are offered a dozen or more plays and musicals per season, with a variety of ticket packages to make it easy on your budget.

The CLT waited 17 years before presenting its first holiday show, "The Joyous Season," in 1940. After a gap of 45 more years, the theater staged "A Christmas Carol," according to its production archives, which must have been well-received, because the Dickens play was presented annually from 1986-'91 and again in 1993 and 1995. Since 1996, records show some nod to the season every year in shows such as "Best Christmas Pageant Ever," "Miracle on 34th Street," and "Sanders Family Christmas." This year, the "Scrooge!" musical opens December 8, with Joel Martin in the title role.

"Scrooge! the Musical" at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre:

400 River St.

Dec. 8-31, 7:30 p.m.; 2:30 p.m. weekend matinees

$32 adults, $27 students

TheatreCentre.com/productions/scrooge


Lighting Up the Neighborhood

Garden Clubs thrived during the 1950s, '60s and into the '70s, until more women began joining the workforce.

Some clubs were named for their area of town (Brainerd, Highland Park, Cameron Hill, Signal and Lookout mountains). Others designated specific subdivisions (Lake Hills, Murray Hills, Foxwood Heights).

Garden clubs not only offered social connections for their members but community beautification enhancements for their neighborhoods. Beginning in the 1950s, subdivision garden clubs would choose a holiday theme and encourage all their residents to decorate to that theme.

For example, "Christmas carols" was the theme of one 1960s Christmas season in Lake Hills. Every house had a 6-foot plywood board erected in the front yard, on which the homeowners painted/decorated the title of their chosen carol. The home's exterior was decorated to match. Homeowners had only begun to put illuminated trees outside, and the fad at that time was to run an extension cord to a spotlight out in the front yard that would illuminate the home's exterior.

These lavish themed displays would draw admirers from across the city. The whole family would pile in the station wagon and head out to drive through these neighborhood seasonal salutes. A caravan of cars would slowly crawl down neighborhood streets, with kids excitedly pointing from one house to another as they ooohed and aahed over the displays. It made for quality family time.

Bill Pierce, a young entrepreneur growing up in Lake Hills at that time, got the idea that homeowners might like a keepsake photo of their creativity. So his senior year at Central High School, the 1960 Central graduate began driving to these neighborhoods, then walking the streets and shooting photos of each house. He'd make 8x10 prints and go back to each home to see if owners wanted to buy them.

"I'd go back and hold the print out where they would see it when they opened their doors," the Ooltewah resident says of his sales technique. "The most common response was 'Oh!' About 60 percent would buy them."

Pierce sold the 8x10 prints for $4 each. He said his annual profit ranged from $90 to $120 (approximately $879-$1,172 by today's standards), which was a good amount in the '60s. He says he sold photos from 1959 to the mid-'60s.

In Shepherd Hills, residents lined their streets with white bags filled with sand and a candle. The illuminated bags shone like twinkling stars.

Judy McReynolds Woods, a UTC alum now living in Atlanta, recalls "driving through Shepherd Hills, dinner at the S&W Cafeteria downtown, followed by a tour of the EPB windows."

Shepherd Hills will hold its 98th luminaria lighting this month. Katy Ingvalson, mayor of Ridgeside, says it takes 1,730 bags to line the neighborhood streets now. And even with the advent of battery-operated candles, they still use real ones because the newer style doesn't emit enough light.

Shepherd Hills Luminaria Lighting:

Shepherd Hills, Ridgeside neighborhood (three entrances off Shallowford Road)

Dec. 18-19, 6-8 p.m.

Free, drive-through

  photo  Photo contributed by Rock City / The Enchanted Garden of Lights
 
 


A Winter Wonderland

In the '70s, Rock City on Lookout Mountain began offering a new option for those wanting a little Christmas cheer — a holiday light extravaganza that, on a clear night, might even be visible in seven states.

This month marks the 29th year for Rock City's Enchanted Garden of Lights, but the winter wonderland actually began in 1971. That first holiday display was themed Christmas in Fairyland. In the 1980s, it became Legends of Christmas. In 1994, it was renamed Enchanted Garden of Lights as a nod to the more than 250,000 lights used. Now the holiday display includes well over a million lights and 30 scenes.

"Just in recent years, the Enchanted Trail was reimagined into realms, each with its own theme," says Meagan Jolley, senior manager of public relations and social media for See Rock City Inc.

  photo  Photo contributed by Rock City / The entrance to Rock Citys Enchanted Garden of Lights in 1995
 
 


"Last year, for the first time, the Hall of the Mountain King was opened at night for a never-before-seen experience with nighttime views. This year, we will have igloos in the Arctic Kingdom as a rest area to get warm, as well as new themed lights at the front plaza in the North Pole."

Millennials who visited the light show at its beginning are now bringing their children to start their own family traditions while helping families of sick children. All proceeds from the Enchanted Garden of Lights benefit Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chattanooga. This nonprofit provides a home away from home to help parents stay near their hospitalized children.

Enchanted Garden of Lights:

Rock City Gardens, 1400 Patten Road, Lookout Mountain, Georgia

Nightly through Jan. 6, beginning at 4:30 p.m.; closed Christmas Eve

$31.95 adults, $21.95 ages 3-12, advance ticket purchase recommended

Purchase timed tickets online at seerockcity.com/events/enchatned-garden-of-lights

  photo  Photo contributed by Rock City / Christmas light displays in Rock City Gardens
 
 


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