On Thursday night, from the steps of Roberts Hall at High Point University, the scene looked like a Christmas card.
Families posed for holiday pictures in front of the 16-foot Nutcrackers flanking either side of Roberts Hall. A train turned a brick walkway into a track as children nearby bounced and slid through four inflatables at least two stories high.
Then there was the little girl in the lavender parka. She raised her arms, danced in circles near the base of a big nutcracker and yelled, “Happy Snowflake Day!”
That is Community Christmas, HPU’s annual gift to anyone and everyone.
At least 15,000 people came Thursday night. Despite the rainy forecast, Community Christmas will continue tonight.
It’s a holiday tradition in central North Carolina. People come from everywhere, from all walks of life, to see a campus full of lights, song, toy soldiers and snowflakes made out of soap bubbles.
They come for many reasons – to see Santa, ride a tiny train, visit the Nativity scene, or take communion in Hayworth Chapel after hearing hymns that take them back to a time of innocence and warmth.
Community Christmas, they say, reminds them about the why of the season.
They do love that.
Finding The Magic
Lindsay Scott saw them coming — a sea of kids, as excited as puppies, heading toward an HPU coach bus bound for Community Christmas.
Scott, a 2013 HPU graduate, is now the university’s director of corporate relations. But on Thursday night, she was an HPU volunteer – one of hundreds – who help families make another memory.
It was her first time volunteering for Community Christmas, and standing at Oak Hollow Mall, she knew right away how the event made children feel with every question she asked them.
“You’re almost there!” she said. “Are you excited?”
They just jumped and nodded. They knew they were five minutes away from what they saw was a magical place with 93,000 lights, 12,400 feet of garland, 300 poinsettias, 23 life-size Nativity figures, 12 Christmas trees and 130 nutcrackers and soldiers.
Brystol Lynn Vickers couldn’t wait.
She’s 9, she has a muscular condition, and she needs a wheelchair to get around. On Thursday night, her wheelchair looked like a Christmas tree with silver garland snaking through its spokes.
Her 12-year-old sister, Bella Rose, did that. Their mom couldn’t be happier.
Jessica Vickers, a married mother of five from Asheboro, North Carolina, has come to Community Christmas for the past five years. She brings her children to see Santa, drink hot chocolate and eat hotdogs.
That, of course, includes Brystol Lynn.
Jessica knows she doesn’t have to worry about her daughter not being able to get around or wait in a long line to see Santa. HPU has that covered.
“With a special kid, it’s hard,” says Jessica, 36. “But here, we don’t have to worry, and that makes it enjoyable for everyone. You can relax.”
And Scott Wilhelm did relax. His three sons were inside Slane Student Center getting ready to see Santa.
“I grew up in High Point, I’ve seen the university grow, and I’ve seen this event grow,” says Wilhelm, a High Point resident who works in sales for Old Dominion Freight Line. “The university has done a good job putting this event together, and I enjoy it because it brings people from all walks of life together. You don’t see that very often.
“And my kids, they get so excited. When we get here, the first thing they ask is, ‘When are we going to see Santa?’ So we come here to High Point University. They love it.”
Nearby stood his oldest son, Clayton. He’s 8, a third grader, and on Thursday night, his lips were blue from eating Fun Dip before he came.
“I like coming because you get to see so much stuff,” he says. “And eat. And do the bouncy houses. And see Santa. I like seeing Santa. I’m going to ask him for an RC Car, and you get to ask him for anything you want. But not something too expensive.”
The Memories Created
Inside the Culp Planetarium, where Santa’s sleigh streaked across the sky, nine-year-old Robert McIntosh stood beside his little brothers, Antoine and Cam. He couldn’t get over what he saw right above his head.
“Where’s Santa?” asked his 7-year-old Antoine. “Is he there? Is that the North Pole?”
“No,” Robert respond. “That’s the moon.”
Havy McIntosh brought her three young sons Thursday night after searching online for something fun for the family. That’s how she found Community Christmas. And that’s how she found fun. But it’s more than that.
Havy came to North Carolina from Vietnam in 1995. Back then, she was a teenager, and her family was trying to find a better life away from violence and struggle. She’s now 37, a nurse, and she lives 10 minutes from campus.
Why Community Christmas?
“It’s safe,” she says. “It’s so well organized, and it’s really beautiful. This is quality time for us.”
As for the Santa’s sleigh racing across the 50-foot circular dome in the Culp Planetarium, Robert had an answer.
“It’s so real,” he said.
The Moments Found
On Thursday night, the comments came.
“We have to get a picture with Mr. Soldier Man.”
“Did you see that candy cane on stilts?”
“Look at the snow. Snow! Snow! Snow!”
Allison Hatcher had heard it all before. For the past two years, Hatcher has volunteered at Community Christmas. She’s second-year physical therapy student at HPU, and once again, she found herself Thursday night at the Polar Express.
Hatcher is from Indianapolis, Indiana, far from home. She volunteers because Community Christmas brings back warm memories of her childhood, of singing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve in her church, around family with her candle raised.
At the Polar Express, Hatcher feels that same warmth, too. And laughter. Lots of laughter.
“That’s my favorite part,” she says. “When I hear that, I know we’ve done our job.”
Scott understands. At Oak Hollow Mall, she saw why people come year after year. It’s not on what they said. It’s how they moved.
“People weren’t going through the motions,” she says. “You could read people’s expression and see it in their eyes. Just a genuine gratitude of what we were doing. And I was excited to see such a diverse population of people all happy about being together.
“They were all there to celebrate the season and respect their neighbor, and that shows anyone that we’re not that different after all.”
The Why Behind The Season
On Thursday night at Hayworth Chapel, Betty Cherrod sat in the back with the Methodist hymnal splayed across her lap.
She was looking to see what hymns she knew. She knew a lot of them. She has sung them for a long time.
Cherrod grew up a few hours east of campus in Wilson, North Carolina. She was one of 10 kids. Her dad was a truck driver, her mom was a homemaker, and they sang Christmas carols on people’s doorsteps on Christmas Eve.
Cherrod is now 80. Her friends call her “Miss Betty.” She lives 30 minutes from campus, and she needs a walker to move. On Thursday night, she parked her walker in the corner of the chapel and listened.
She came with one of her daughters. Her daughter had been to Community Christmas before. But not Cherrod. And once she arrived at the chapel, she didn’t move. She had a reason.
“Christmas has gotten so commercial,” she says, “and I’m so glad to hear songs about what Christmas is all about. It’s about the birth of Jesus, you know. He was born to save us from our sins.
“And when I hear these hymns,” she says, patting a page of the hymnal, “I think about home.”
A few steps away from Cherrod stood Na’tosha Brooks. She works as the department administrator for HPU’s Success Coach program, and she has volunteered for Community Christmas for the past three years. For her, it is always time well spent.
She saw that firsthand in the chapel Thursday night.
“From a toddler who was maybe one or two to Miss Betty, I just saw a glow,” Brooks says. “That’s such a beautiful thing. It just shows that when you set up an atmosphere of warmth and love, people will adapt to that environment and respond.
“And we all need that. We need to give people – all of us — hope for a better future.”