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Memories from the 1980s: Downtown’s 1st Coastal Christmas Celebration

New Bern's First Christmas with Santa
New Bern’s First Christmas with Santa

My recent conversation with Linda Morris was filled with hearty laughter, as we reminisced about the pitfalls and foibles of downtown New Bern’s 1984 Coastal Christmas Celebration and Tree Lighting Ceremony, and its unforgettable ending.

Susan, it was awful, just awful! I was never so embarrassed in my entire life. I wanted to crawl in a hole and die!”

During Linda’s tenure on the *Swiss Bear Board of Directors in the mid-1980’s, she initiated and served as chairman of the Coastal Christmas Celebration Committee. Linda recalled, “As a New Bern native, I had many vivid happy memories of a downtown that celebrated the holidays. The Molly Heath tree in the Christ Episcopal Church yard was always decorated with Christmas lights, Christmas music filled the air, Santa had a little house on Middle Street, and there was always a Christmas parade … all of those kinds of things, but the decline of the downtown in the ‘70s put an end to all of that. The whole idea was to create an event that would bring people back downtown, one that would get families involved.”

Santa arriving at intersection Pollock and Middle
Santa arriving at intersection Pollock and Middle Sts

In September 1984, the new Swiss Bear Coastal Christmas Celebration Committee met with East Carolina Yacht Club members to discuss organizing a flotilla parade of decorated boats on the downtown’s waterfront. Since it was late in the year and construction of the new Sheraton Hotel and marina was still underway in the urban renewal area on the Trent River waterfront, the decision was made to wait and organize a flotilla in 1985.

In the meantime, when the Christ Episcopal Church Vestry gave the committee permission to decorate the large Molly Hearth tree in the churchyard, the committee decided to kick-off the holiday season with a Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the evening of December 5, the first Saturday of the month. Three electrical supply companies contributed strings of colored lights, city staff would put them on the tree and the Church would turn them on every evening. Harold Talton (then, Swiss Bear Chairman) agreed to be Santa and would ride in the parade in a small roller sleigh.

An hour-long program was scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. in front of the main post office at the corner of New and Middle Street. Performances would be held by the New Bern High School band and drill team and the Centenary Church Children’s Bell Choir. Pro-Musica would then lead everyone in parade-form down Middle Street to the Pollock Street intersection, singing, Here Comes Santa Claus, two drill team members would pull the sleigh with Santa, and when they arrived at the intersection, he would make some cheery comments, Reverend Ed Sharp, Rector of Christ Church would give a Christmas blessing, and at that moment, with a flick of Santa’s finger, all the lights on the wreaths and Molly Heath Tree would come on.

To my question, “so what went wrong, why was it an awful experience?”

Cheerleaders at New Bern's 1st Christmas Celebration

Linda related, “On the same day of the celebration, when we learned, the city staff had just finished hanging wreaths on the light poles, and still hadn’t turned any of the lights in the decorations on, we came up with the idea we would tie the lighting of the Christmas wreath decorations and Molly Heath tree lights with the Tree Lighting Ceremony so all of the lights would be tied to a timer and Santa, with a flick of his finger, could turn everything on at the same time.

Around noon on December 5, as it began to rain, the temperature dropped and the rain turned into sleet. By 5 p.m. we knew we were in trouble. Everyone was freezing, children were crying, musicians could barely perform, so we cut that portion of the program short and everyone paraded to the Pollock/Middle Street intersection.

In the freezing cold, after a quick blessing and a few Ho, Ho, Ho’s, everyone watched in great anticipation for the moment all the lights would come on. A media cameramen stood poised as Santa flicked the switch.

Nothing happened. He flicked it again, and again nothing happened. He looked at Linda, ‘‘What went wrong?’ “I don’t know, try again.” He flicked it again, still no lights. Finally, they realized the lights weren’t going to come on, as the timer had been set for 6:30 p.m. according to the scheduled program. By cutting it short, they were 15 to 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Linda said, “While someone tried to get into City Hall to move the timer ahead, we stood there humiliated, watching everyone leave in total disappointment. When the lights finally did come on, no more than five people were there to see it. It was awful. It’s funny now, but it certainly wasn’t then.”

Performance by NBHS Drill Team
Performance by New Bern High School Drill Team

The December 20 Swiss Bear board minutes have a brief entry: Christmas Committee – Agenda item #8… Linda Morris reported, our committee learned from our mistakes this year and will meet in January to plan for next year.

*Nonprofit established in 1979 to lead downtown’s revitalization effort, in partnership with local government

Submitted by: Susan Moffat-Thomas, retired Ex Dir. Swiss Bear Downtown Dev.