For the seventh straight year, Christmas came to High Point University last week.
At least 26,000 people experienced a two-night event that transformed the university into a storybook scene full of 12-foot Nutcrackers, a life-size Nativity and a 40-foot DNA helix that turned into a striped candy cane.
Snowflakes made of soap cascaded from rooftops, families gathered around a replica of baby Jesus for their annual Christmas portrait and HPU students dressed as elves greeted everyone boarding buses bound for campus.
Smiles became contagious, and the two nights reminded the people who came and the people who volunteered the importance of what they saw and heard around them.
It’s the importance of maintaining tradition, stoking holiday memories, building community, spreading kindness and remembering the real reason for the season – the birth of a baby boy in a stable more than 2,000 years ago.
That is Community Christmas.
“The Lord is here”
Paul and Jean Dodge, a husband and wife from High Point, had never been to Community Christmas before. But they came last week to hear the music and see the campus transformation they had heard so much about.
They ended up in the Hayworth Chapel, sitting seven pews back and listening to the Rev. Preston Davis, the minister of the university.
“I see a babe lying in a manger and it reminds me of why Christmas is all about vulnerability and tenderness,” said Davis, walking down the sanctuary’s center aisle speaking to everyone around him. “We all need to see Christmas through new eyes. It’s the fresh eyes to see Jesus, the God we need.”
A few minutes later, Davis asked the 60 people inside to come forward and take part in communion, a Community Christmas first.
Paul and Jean Dodge stood up and walked down the center aisle. They were the first.
“I see so many people concentrating on gifts, gifts, gifts, and this (communion) reminds me why we’re celebrating,” said Jean Dodge, 72. “It’s that the Lord is here.”
“It grounds me and brings it all right back,” added Paul Dodge, 72. “The lights and decorations are beautiful, but reason for the season is right here – the birth of Christ.”
Finding Santa, Savoring Memories
From a block away, Betsy Owen saw it.
She focused her iPhone on the tall Nutcracker in front of her and wanted to get in the background in just the right way the DNA helix, the huge sculpture inside the three-story atrium of Congdon Hall.
Owen feels like she lives in Congdon. She’s a graduate student in physical therapy, and she walks into Congdon right after daybreak for classes and stays there studying until nearly midnight.
So, before she takes her string of exams and before she goes home to Columbia, South Carolina, she wanted that one photo. She wanted to remember.
“Seeing the DNA sculpture looking like a candy cane in a building where you’re there from 7:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night makes you remember, ‘Oh, Christmas is happening,’” she said. “‘All this (her exams) will end.’”
But Zoe Holley-Bright didn’t want Christmas to end.
She’s 4, and when she stepped off the bus on campus, she had on her antlers, and she wanted to find Santa quick. She clutched the hand of her mom, Pamela Holley-Bright, a local third-grade teacher and a 2006 HPU alumna, and pulled her along.
Zoe had an urgent message for Santa. She wanted a Minnie Mouse bike.
Giavanna Silverhardt, though, wanted a memory.
She’s a sixth-grader from nearby Greensboro, North Carolina, and she came to Community Christmas with her mom and her grandmother. Silverhardt came both nights, and on the first night, she chased soap-bubble snowflakes that wafted like leaves in the wind.
A man dressed as a toy soldier sent the snowflakes skyward. They were the size of banquet plates, and Silverhardt chased at least six across the Kester International Promenade, dancing and leaping as she went.
“I want to savor the memories,” she said. “I want to remember this when I get older.”
A Tradition Continues
Community Christmas brings out something new every year.
Other than the communion inside the Hayworth Chapel, HPU unveiled a train tunnel of Christmas lights in front of Roberts Hall, speed painter Tim Decker inside the Hayworth Fine Arts Center and a chance for anyone to build Lego villages and see Lego Man inside the Wanek Center.
People in and around High Point have already asked about the dates for the next Community Christmas. The event has turned into a tradition for many.
Next year, Community Christmas will fall again on a Thursday and Friday night, Dec. 13 and 14. People will come from everywhere, and they’re drawn for various reasons. But one thing is clear: Community Christmas brings out the child in everyone.
Brianna Beard feels it. She’s an HPU junior from Fairfield, Connecticut, and for the second straight year, she volunteered for Community Christmas before making the 10-hour drive home.
She donned gray leggings and slipped into a red and green costume made of felt. Once again, she became Brianna, the Bus Elf.
She greeted people as they boarded the bus at a mall parking lot nearby. But this year, the people Beard saw had something else to see.
They looked at a video screen above the driver and watched a video of a bus elf reciting a poem written about Community Christmas. That bus elf was Beard.
She wrote the poem after last year’s Community Christmas, and she patterned it after the famous one, “Twas The Night Before Christmas,” first published in 1823.
Many on the bus recognized Beard from the video. A few even had questions. But not the little red-haired girl in the Santa dress.
“Look!” the little girl exclaimed, pointing at Beard. “That’s you!”
Beard leaned down.
“Yes, it is,” she said. “Hello. Merry Christmas.”