Thousands of lights twinkled, dozens of carols rang out and, for two straight hours, St. Nicholas wished everyone a merry Christmas during the first St. Mary of the Mills Christmas Festival on Dec. 18.
The inaugural drive-thru event attracted between 300 and 500 cars the week before Christmas to the church’s parking lots along Main Street. The festivities were the idea of the Rev. Larry Young, who wanted to inspire his parishioners at the end of a difficult year.
“Let’s do something in the dead of winter, in the darkness leading up to Christmas, to just light up the place with that Advent spirit of Christmas hope and joy,” Young said.
Light up the place he did.
Vehicles, some of which waited more than 20 minutes to get in, entered the parking lot of the Msgr. Keesler Parish Center and were immediately greeted by Young, dressed as a shepherd with a face mask. He handed out holy cards with a Christmas prayer composed by the Rev. Christian Huebner, the church’s parochial vicar. The cars, many of them filled with children, were then treated to a waving St. Nicholas in his red bishop’s robe and a few socially-distanced carolers.
Masked and distanced members of the youth group put on a living nativity, with students in the roles of Mary, Joseph and the shepherds adoring baby Jesus in a stable specially constructed for the event. The three wise men lingered a bit farther away. A favorite feature of the evening for many attendees was the live animals, including a miniature donkey, some sheep and a llama.
At the center of the parking lot was a giant 35-foot Christmas tree constructed from scaffolding, red and green plastic tablecloths and thousands of lights.
Cars wound their way through the Keesler Center parking lot and then crossed St. Mary’s Place to the school parking lot, where festivities continued. Various groups from the parish created Christmas-themed displays, including: “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Candy Cane Lane, Beach Christmas, Camping Christmas, Winter Wonderland and a Grinch-themed Christmas. Santa Claus waved to families as some of his elves handed each car a gift bag before it drove off the lot. Inside the bag were some St. Mary magnets, a Christmas card from the parish and a copy of the New Testament.
Pallotti Early Learning Center put on “A Charlie Brown Christmas” display, complete with a small, sad, drooping Christmas tree.
“We thought it would be something a lot of people could relate to,” said Kelli Davenport, center director, with a laugh.
Kristy Murray and Suzanna Pieslak, who help lead the Home and School Association, used inflatables from their yards and spent hours setting up their Grinch-themed display, which included a poster with the slogan “2020: Stink, Stank, Stunk” and a Grinch hand tossing a face mask. They handed out candy and Christmas-themed “cootie catchers” to cars as they passed.
“It’s been great having the collaboration between the parish and the school and all the different groups working together,” Pieslak said.
Other groups involved in the Christmas festival included the Knights of Columbus, Boy Scout Troop 1250, Cub Scout Pack 1250, American Heritage Girls Troop 1208, various parish choirs, the school faculty and some individual families.
The Christmas festival was inspired by a drive-thru trunk-or-treat event that St. Mary’s School hosted in October, Young said, which was a great success. The event was organized in just three weeks, including approval from the city of Laurel and the Laurel Police Department, and controls to keep it in line with county guidelines.
“I think it exceeded all of our expectations,” Young said. “This was an idea I just threw out there and everyone just jumped on it.”
Young arrived at St. Mary as pastor in July, in the middle of the pandemic. Public Masses resumed in June, but attendance is limited to 25 percent capacity. While some individual parishioners have had cases of COVID-19, there have been no outbreaks at the parish or school. Many of the community’s annual events, including its fundraising Christmas bazaar, were canceled. The Christmas festival was free, though donations were accepted to offset costs. Young is already thinking about a possible festival for next year.
“It really could be so much better with more preparation and coordination,” Young said. “This is an experiment. If people like it, then we’ll consider doing it again. There’s plenty of room to grow.”
In the meantime, the church is ready to welcome parishioners who have registered to attend one of the eight Christmas Masses offered Christmas Eve and Christmas day.
“They’re going to be packed within our limitations,” Young said. “People are so hungry for meaning, for hope, for the strength of their faith. They’re more aware of that now than other times in their lives because of this pandemic, the importance and value they place on their faith.”