Oregon's Jacksonville celebrates Christmas past

In Jacksonville, Oregon, St. Nicholas doesn't wear a red suitwith faux white fur and sit in a department store. He strides downCalifornia Street in black boots ― his long, red velvet robeflapping, his silver locks curling where they brush his shoulders― looking for someone with Christmas wishes to whisper. Thisis a St. Nick my great-great-grandmother would have recognized. Andone, I feel certain, with whom I can share my own hopes and dreamswith confidence.

SUVs and station wagons notwithstanding, this is a street mygreat-great-grandma would have recognized as well, withbrick-and-wood storefronts dating as far back as the 1850s.Jacksonville, in the Rogue Valley, is one of the West's mostwell-preserved Gold Rush-era small towns, and it's at its bestduring the holiday season. The crowds that come for the summer-longBritt Festivals of music are gone, but the modest collection ofshops, restaurants, and inns that cater to them are still open forbusiness. During the Victorian Christmas festivities held the threeweekends before Christmas, a canvas-topped wagon pulled by a pairof mules loops through the streets, offering free rides. OnSaturdays, don't be surprised to see residents that look to beright out of the 1800s ― men and women, young and old ―strolling in costume and in character, ready to strike up aconversation.

It's a little silly and a lot of fun. And it's not really forthe benefit of tourists ― not entirely, anyway. Residents ofJacksonville love the town and cherish its history. The whole townis a federally designated National Historic Landmark, with morethan 100 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. TheSouthern Oregon Historical Society operates two museums here, onein the old brick-and-stone county courthouse and the other in the1911 jail next door.

Several of the town's vintage buildings provide lodging andmeals to travelers. Jacksonville Inn, lodging guests off and onsince it was built in 1861, still has a glint of the Gold Rushabout it--locals say specks of gold are visible in the mortar.McCully House Inn, raised a year earlier, serves meals on itselegantly refurbished main floor. With its rose-bordered front walkand simple columns, Jacksonville's Magnolia Inn looks Victorianenough, but look closer to see the lines of the 1928 hospitalaround which it was created.

"The buildings are nice," says Loreli Thayer, proprietor ofGussied Up, a store that sells historic reproduction clothing. "Butthere's a lot more to it." That "more" includes the influences ofthe people who lived here and built the town, and whose spiritsstill inspire it. That's where the Jacksonville Street TheatreTroupe, organized by Thayer, steps in. The troupe consists of acouple of dozen volunteer historical re-enactors who research theircharacters, and make or buy their own elaborate outfits.

"More" also includes the simple pleasures of a small-townholiday celebration. Take the December 3 parade, an evening affairthat precedes the annual lighting of the Christmas tree downtown.U.S. Marine Corps Color Guard, Navy reservists, bagpipers, marchingbands from North and South Medford High Schools, llamas, localdignitaries in vintage cars, Brownie Girl Scouts and Cub Scouts,old men in antique tractors: Who's not in this parade? Everyonewho's not seems to turn out to watch, so arrive early to find aparking space. You can browse the shops while you wait, since manymerchants stay open late that night.

When morning comes, the man roasting chestnuts will be back atthe corner of California and Third Streets, as he is every year.Try one--they're free, though their flavor is not one most modernpalates are prepared for: bland and starchy. Christmas music willbe drifting from outdoor speakers on a couple of corners, with aplaylist paying homage to no particular period (was that BingCrosby?). Down a side street, past the wine shop or the artgallery, you might stumble on the local garden club's annual plantsale, or the Order of the Eastern Star's bazaar, with itshome-baked cookies and hand-knit hats. Like the chestnuts, they'renot things you need or ever thought you wanted. But you might besurprised to find that, like the festive feeling on even a grayDecember day in Jacksonville, they're something you're glad tohave.

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