Christmas CENTRAL

By Prokosh, Kevin | Winnipeg Free Press, December 19, 2015 | Go to article overview

Christmas CENTRAL


Prokosh, Kevin, Winnipeg Free Press


Branson celebrates the holidays with parades, entertainment and millions of dazzling lights

BRANSON, Mo. -- It may only be Remembrance Day in Canada but a visitor arriving at the Hiltons of Branson Hotel is greeted by the receptionist with an earnest "Merry Christmas."

In this tiny burg of 10,500 nestled in the Ozark Mountains about an hour south of Springfield, Christmas creep -- the current phenomenon where the Santa season starts earlier and earlier every year -- is a full-on Christmas charge. Hours after the last trick or treaters head home with their Halloween haul, twinkling lights and decorations garnish every tree, bush, building, even the Ozark Zephyr vintage train locomotive. With American Thanksgiving weeks away the whole town is aglow with the Christmas spirit and eight million lights.

The highest point in town, the 70-metre-high Inspiration Tower, is decked out as the Ozark's largest Christmas tree while the lowest point, the 20-storey deep cathedral room in nearby Marvel Cave, can be illuminated by the outline of a 35-metre-high Christmas tree.

"It's all about Christmas here," says Rick Thomas, a popular illusionist and the MC for the Most Wonderful Time of the Year parade held on a sunny 7 C Saturday in mid-November. "We celebrate Christmas here for two solid months. Christmas helped put Branson on the map."

Actually, it was the live music capital of the entire universe -- so dubbed by TV's 60 Minutes -- long before Santa came to town. About 50 theatres -- including Andy Williams' Moon River Theatre, Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theatre and Yakov Smirnoff Theatre -- offer more seats than Broadway. Every week the country-music mecca offers 120 shows featuring stars you haven't thought about in decades, like the Oak Ridge Boys, the Osmonds (minus Marie and Donny), the Lennon Sisters, Mickey Gilley and Johnny Mathis. There's even more retro tribute acts impersonating Elvis, the Blues Brothers, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Louis and Barney Fife.

These wholesome family throwback acts, along with gorgeous scenery, the best trout steams and championship golf courses attract about eight million visitors annually. (There was a time in the 1990s when a Winnipeg entrepreneur was interested in using our under-utilized stock of historic theatres in the hopes of becoming the Branson of the North.)

The steady stream of out-of-town visitors used to slow to a trickle in October until 20 years ago, when the Ozark Mountain Christmas was created as a way to extend Branson's tourist season. Now November is the second busiest month of the year (after July) when about one million people head here to make merry. The town, whose citizens openly honour God and country, typically makes the short list of the most Christmassy places in the United States.

"We say 'Merry Christmas' down here, too," says Santa, before hopping aboard his sleigh -- actually, it was a Jeep -- to join the parade. "We don't say happy holidays. We know what the reason is for Christmas. Jesus Christ was born and we don't shy away from professing it to the world."

People come to Branson to see and celebrate how small-town America used to be, especially at Christmas. There's a nostalgia or "noelstagia" for the good old ho-ho-ho days. All the theatres present new Christmas shows or at least incorporate carol medleys. Look it, if you are The Oak Ridge Boys you have to sing Elvira. …

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