Winter cheer

Oregon's Jacksonville celebrates Christmas past
Bonnie Henderson

In Jacksonville, Oregon, St. Nicholas doesn't wear a red suit with faux white fur and sit in a department store. He strides down California Street in black boots ― his long, red velvet robe flapping, his silver locks curling where they brush his shoulders ― looking for someone with Christmas wishes to whisper. This is a St. Nick my great-great-grandmother would have recognized. And one, I feel certain, with whom I can share my own hopes and dreams with confidence.

SUVs and station wagons notwithstanding, this is a street my great-great-grandma would have recognized as well, with brick-and-wood storefronts dating as far back as the 1850s. Jacksonville, in the Rogue Valley, is one of the West's most well-preserved Gold Rush-era small towns, and it's at its best during the holiday season. The crowds that come for the summer-long Britt Festivals of music are gone, but the modest collection of shops, restaurants, and inns that cater to them are still open for business. During the Victorian Christmas festivities held the three weekends before Christmas, a canvas-topped wagon pulled by a pair of mules loops through the streets, offering free rides. On Saturdays, don't be surprised to see residents that look to be right out of the 1800s ― men and women, young and old ― strolling in costume and in character, ready to strike up a conversation.

It's a little silly and a lot of fun. And it's not really for the benefit of tourists ― not entirely, anyway. Residents of Jacksonville love the town and cherish its history. The whole town is a federally designated National Historic Landmark, with more than 100 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. The Southern Oregon Historical Society operates two museums here, one in the old brick-and-stone county courthouse and the other in the 1911 jail next door.

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

"The buildings are nice," says Loreli Thayer, proprietor of Gussied Up, a store that sells historic reproduction clothing. "But there's a lot more to it." That "more" includes the influences of the people who lived here and built the town, and whose spirits still inspire it. That's where the Jacksonville Street Theatre Troupe, organized by Thayer, steps in. The troupe consists of a couple of dozen volunteer historical re-enactors who research their characters, and make or buy their own elaborate outfits.

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

When morning comes, the man roasting chestnuts will be back at the corner of California and Third Streets, as he is every year. Try one--they're free, though their flavor is not one most modern palates are prepared for: bland and starchy. Christmas music will be drifting from outdoor speakers on a couple of corners, with a playlist paying homage to no particular period (was that Bing Crosby?). Down a side street, past the wine shop or the art gallery, you might stumble on the local garden club's annual plant sale, or the Order of the Eastern Star's bazaar, with its home-baked cookies and hand-knit hats. Like the chestnuts, they're not things you need or ever thought you wanted. But you might be surprised to find that, like the festive feeling on even a gray December day in Jacksonville, they're something you're glad to have.