December 2007 Issue
Spirit of the Season
Our state is home to a wealth of unique, holiday-themed destinations and activities, encouraging your family to create new Christmas traditions.
Recall your favorite holiday memories from childhood: The comforting aroma of hot chocolate as you unlace your ice skates, your cheeks red with chill. The prick of pine needles on your fingers as your parents let you choose the Christmas tree. The clarity of the night sky seen from the carriage of a horse-drawn sleigh.
Odds are, those memories don’t include late-night shopping at a big-box store.
It’s hardly a new complaint. The idea that this season is now less about spending time with loved ones and more about spending large amounts of cash seems to reemerge every December, like an old Christmas tree ornament tucked away in the attic all year. For some, the beloved family traditions that once made this the most anticipated of all holidays –– from greeting carolers at the front door to dressing up to see a nighttime production of “The Nutcracker” –– are now sepia toned and relegated to nostalgia, replaced by scouring the Sunday newspaper for the best sales and standing in line for the latest toy.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
The holidays are what you make them, and the opportunities to start new family traditions are everywhere. Especially in Ohio: Picturesque sleigh rides, charming Christmas festivals, unique gatherings in the great outdoors –– our state features a wealth of ways to celebrate the true spirit of the season. The following are just a few of those destinations and activities, guaranteed to create memories that your family will treasure for a lifetime.
Think of them as proof that the best Christmas gifts don’t come wrapped with a bow.
The Christmas Tree Ship,
For many people, childhood remembrances of this time of year aren’t complete without recalling their parents’ annual hunt for the perfect tree — from dad’s deliberative haggling at the Christmas tree lot for an ever-lower price, to mom carefully nudging every blue spruce to see just how many needles fall to the ground.
Folks in the town of Vermilion, though, have the opportunity to create memories that are just as cherished, but even more unique, thanks to the yearly arrival of the Christmas Tree Ship. The residents of this northeast Ohio spot appreciate their area’s shipping-industry roots, and flocking to the river for a boat filled with holiday cheer is a perfect way to pay tribute to that past.
It all began with German-born Prince Albert, who brought the tradition of Christmas trees to Britain when he married Queen Victoria. The royal couple’s fashion caught on quickly there and soon crossed over to the United States, where each household began craving a tree to call their own at the holidays.
Since Christmas trees were plentiful in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, many ship captains happily embraced the end-of-season crop that they could carry along their route home. “Each year, Captain Herman Schuenemann would load up his three-masted schooner, the Rousse Simmons, with Michigan pines,” notes Ann Michaels, an educator with the Great Lakes Historical Society. “He’d fill his cargo hold and load his deck with trees, then sail down to Chicago to sell them.”
Schuenemann’s missions had him coined “Captain Santa,” and his generous spirit — he was known for giving away trees to needy families and churches — made him an even more popular figure. Sadly, the captain, his crew and his ship were lost to a storm in 1912. However, Schuenemann’s wife and daughters carried on the tradition, loading a ship of their own with trees the very next year and sailing it from Michigan to Chicago in time for the holidays.
The wreck of the Rousse Simmons was discovered by divers in the early 1970s, which reignited interest in the old tradition and inspired a book, The Christmas Tree Ship by Rochelle Pennington — which, in turn, served as inspiration for Vermilion’s holiday event.
“We wanted to highlight the history of getting Christmas trees to the area,” says Lynda Ulrich, program director at Main Street Vermilion, Inc. She notes that the town acquired Christmas trees and other goods from schooners like the Rousse Simmons. “We drew from the story of that famous ship and honor that tradition here.”
On December 1, as part of a month-long series of holiday celebrations in the city, the Christmas Tree Ship will arrive in Vermilion, loaded with about 60 trees for sale (plus a few to give away). Normally servicing the waters around town as an ice-cutter, the ship is transformed into a light-cargo vessel for the day, while carolers and storytellers mingle with the crowds on the pier and volunteers hand out hot chocolate and cookies.
“The trees go fast,” notes Ulrich, “so get there early.” –– Miriam Carey
When You Go …
Dec. 1, 10:30 a.m.–noon; event is free; trees for purchase. Downtown Vermilion. For details, call 440/204-2400.
Small-Town CelebrationHistoric Lebanon’s Horse-Drawn Carriage Parade and Christmas Festival
It’s a scene so festive, even the Grinch couldn’t steal it.
“Total strangers on the street will just burst into Christmas carols together,” says Sara Arseneau, executive director of the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, the organizing body of the town’s famous Horse-Drawn Carriage Parade and Christmas Festival. “It’s a day of joy.”
Just how revered is the 19-year-old holiday extravaganza? Well, just count those in the crowd. After all, it’s not every day that a small, southwest Ohio town (population 17,000) holds the largest horse-drawn carriage parades in the country — an event that lures nearly 80,000 eager residents and tourists away from the warmth of hearth and home.
On the first Saturday in December, Lebanon’s main thoroughfare shuts down at daybreak to make room for the revelers and a packed roster of entertainers, who perform on a main stage as well as throughout the downtown’s 80-plus antiques and specialty stores. As bell choirs and choral groups provide a soundtrack of cheer, gift and food vendors stationed along East Mulberry Street sell their wares to strolling holiday shoppers. Meanwhile, costumed characters mingle with the crowd, and Santa and Mrs. Claus pose for free photos with the kids.
But while there are plenty of attractions, everyone knows that the event’s real highlights are it’s two parades.
“It’s just fun,” exclaims Wanda Backscheider, 72, of Batavia, who with her husband, Fritz, has driven one of the event’s 140 colorfully decorated carriages for nearly the entire history of the celebration.
At 1 p.m., the first of the day’s parades begins. From old-fashioned meat and postal wagons, to ornate carriages wrapped with garlands and bows, the massive procession rolls through the history-rich town (plotted in 1802) and past such noteworthy structures as The Golden Lamb inn and restaurant.
Perched atop those carriages are elaborately decked-out riders. “We love dressing up in Victorian costumes, and we’re always making new outfits,” Backscheider says with a laugh. For her, navigating a carriage in the parade isn’t just fun. It’s a family tradition: Her daughter and two young grandsons have helped drive the vehicle for the past few years.
At 7 p.m., the candlelight parade winds through Lebanon. High school groups sell candles to the crowd, allowing onlookers to light up the night as holiday spirit fills the air.
“This is such a great event for families,” muses Heather Phillips, a Dayton resident for whom the seemingly Norman-Rockwell-inspired event has become a tradition for her husband and two children. “It’s like no one’s a stranger.”
With so much fanfare and anticipation surrounding each year’s parades, it’s hard to imagine that first one back in 1989, when just a handful of decorated carriages traversed the streets in below-zero temperatures.
“I see people, families, spend an entire day singing and laughing together,” says Arseneau. “You feel the real spirit of Christmas.” — Jenny Pavlasek
When You Go …
Dec. 1; the event is free. Festivities begin at 10 a.m., with parades at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Downtown streets are closed and parking is limited, so visitors are encouraged to use the free shuttle from the Warren County Administration Building at 406 Justice Dr. For more information, call 513/932-1100 or visit www.lebanonchamber.org.
Sleigh Bells RingSleigh rides at Ma and Pa’s Gift Shack, Burton
When horse-drawn sleighs were the only mode of transportation during a snowy Ohio winter, the sound of sleigh bells was used to warn others that a fast-moving, slow-to-stop carriage was approaching on the road. Their jingle peeled through the dark nights, signaling potential visitors and breaking the winter silence of the countryside.
These days, those bells are more likely to be found in the percussion section of your kid’s school orchestra.
However, Ohioans can still experience the thrill of dashing through the snow with sleigh bells ringing across a bucolic landscape, thanks to Ma and Pa’s Gift Shack in Burton.
The “shack” is actually an 1820s log cabin from Zanesville, carefully dismantled, transported and rebuilt in this northeast Ohio town, about 40 miles from Cleveland. By day, owners Tammy and Scott Puleo sell country-themed furniture and adornments — from handmade, red-cedar beds to chainsaw-carved sculptures — in their historic structure. But on weekends, from December through February, the building provides the backdrop for a charming holiday scene as the Puleos hitch Queeny, a spotted draft horse, and Cindy, a Percheron, to one of two old-fashioned sleighs (or, if there’s not enough snow on the ground, a carriage) and take guests on a ride across more than five pastoral acres.
The sleighs are vintage in look and feel, and accommodate visitors in search of a variety of adventures: the cozy sleigh built for two is lit by candle lamps, providing the perfect start to a romantic evening; the second one comfortably seats four, offering plenty of room for a fun-filled family jaunt. Even the carriage — which features electric lighting — provides a unique way to enjoy a wintry day.
“We have a lot of out-of-towners, and kids really get a kick out of it,” says Tammy. “We’ve even had marriage proposals take place on our sleigh rides.”
The half-hour journeys begin at the log cabin, then snake into the woods and out to an open field where, during the evening rides, the horses often stop so guests can gaze up at the stars, absorbing the luxury of a silent night. When the trip has ended, visitors are welcomed back into the cabin to snuggle around the wood-burning stove, sip hot apple cider and nibble on fresh cookies.
“Some people drive hours for the sleigh ride,” says Tammy, who encourages visitors to dress warmly and bring a camera. “A lot of people use the pictures they take here for their Christmas cards.”
But it’s the children who always seem the most inspired by their time at Ma and Pa’s –– and who certainly aren’t afraid to show it. “They either sit wide-eyed in the sleigh,” Tammy says with a laugh, “or start singing ‘Jingle Bells’ as loud as they can.” –– Miriam Carey
When You Go …
Ma and Pa’s Gift Shack, 15161 Main Market Rd., St. Rte. 422, Burton (Troy Township), 440/548-5521, www.maandpas.com. Rides on weekends only, Dec. 1 through Feb.; reservations required. Adults $20, senior discount, $18, children ages 11–16 $10, ages 5–10 $5, ages 4 and under, free.
Woodsy WinterWonderland Christmas in Ash Cave, Logan
All the shopping, baking and wrapping that the holidays bring have a way of keeping us cooped up indoors, too preoccupied to appreciate nature’s simple gifts. For those who long to revel in Mother Nature’s snow-covered handiwork –– not to mention, those who simply need a break from the season’s frantic pace –– Logan’s Christmas in Ash Cave may be southeast Ohio’s best-kept secret.
“We started the event four years ago because December is a quiet time here,” says Pat Quackenbush, the Hocking Hills State Park naturalist. “Folks have no idea what they’re missing.”
The Hocking Hills may be best known as a summertime playground for outdoor enthusiasts, but Christmas at Ash Cave proves that the region is just as entertaining when it’s a winter wonderland for families. Dusk settles over the hills as the first round of merry makers hike a lantern-lit, quarter-mile path to the cave during the event. It’s a short hike, but visitors should dress warmly and in layers: The temperature continues to drop as night sets in. Three roaring bonfires illuminate the massive recess cave, which towers 90 feet above a festive celebration that includes holiday carolers and hikers indulging in hot chocolate and homemade treats.
Even the park’s furry inhabitants are part of the fun.
“It’s a tough time of year for wildlife to find food,” notes Quackenbush. So, the event’s participants can decorate a Christmas tree (set up near the parking area) with tasty offerings for animals: Kids can make ornaments out of pinecones, peanut butter and birdseed to either hang from the tree or take home as a keepsake. Additional children’s activities (which vary each year) have included everything from candle dipping to crafting clove-studded oranges.
The overall theme of the event is an old-fashioned Christmas –– an authentic atmosphere that’s furthered by Santa Claus, who sports a classic red suit and a real beard. “He’s definitely not your typical mall Santa,” says Margaret Thompson, the account clerk for the Hocking Hills state park region. For the past two years, Thompson has traveled to Ash Cave from her home in MacArthur with her sons, 13-year-old Michael and 11-year-old Mark, to pay homage to the region’s stunning scenery. “If you enjoy the outdoors, this is a nice event,” she says.
Of course, naturalist Quackenbush couldn’t agree more.
“Winter is a beautiful time to be in these hills,” he says. “This is really a celebration of nature, the winter season and the holidays all at once.” –– Jenny Pavlasek
When You Go …
Dec. 8, 5–7 p.m.; the event is free. The entrance to Ash Cave is off St. Rte. 56, just west of St. Rte. 374. For more information, contact the park at 740/385-6841 or visit www.heartofhocking.com/Christmas_Ash_Cave.htm.