In many ways – housing starts, traffic, commercial growth – Clayton’s days as a quaint North Carolina village appear to be over. But with Thursday night’s annual Christmas Village and tree lighting, thousands of people filling a half-dozen downtown blocks somehow felt intimate. There was caroling and handbells, photos with Santa Claus, neighbors meeting neighbors and lots of festive dogs in seasonal sweaters.
This marks the 26th year for the Christmas Village and tree lighting, which Ernest and Joyce Blackley started behind their Main Street print shop in 1990. Like Clayton, the event has grown steadily over the past couple of decades to its status today as one of the town’s largest annual events. Residents from all corners of Clayton are drawn downtown for hours of music and business open houses, all leading up to the tree lighting in Town Square. There’s even a dog costume contest.
Sam Robertson, the 99-year-old longtime Clayton businessman, was named 2016’s Mr. Christmas and led the crowd in counting down to the tree lighting.
“Events like this is what makes Clayton special and make it my hometown, your hometown and a place everyone wants to live and have that hometown feel,” said Clayton native son and Downtown Development Association chairman James Lipscomb.
Clayton’s growth is driven largely by young families looking for a place to raise their kids and older adults looking for a spot to retire. In the annual tree lighting, as thousands of eyes wait and watch for twinkling lights to switch on, local leaders see the moment where new families can make the town’s old traditions their own.
“This gives the old community time to get together with the new members of the community; it’s a real intermingling,” said newly elected N.C. House Rep. Donna White. “You see so many new people and hear so many different languages. It’s just a warm, sweet time.”
Anna Almond and her husband Rich moved to Clayton a year and a half ago, and one of their dogs, Lily, won an award in the costume contest. Almond said they wanted to come out and celebrate downtown.
“I love it, I love all the people,” Almond said. “It’s a nice community. It feels very busy, lots to do and see and participate in.”