Christmas Town U.S.A. — How McAdenville became a long-lived legend, 65 years and counting
Every year in December, a little bit of holiday magic and a lot of hard work transforms the town of McAdenville into Christmas Town U.S.A. In most towns and cities across the country, you’ll find houses decorated for Christmas here and there, but in McAdenville, bright, twinkling lights and cheerful holiday displays abound in every direction. Visitors can walk through Christmas Town by foot or ride in a vehicle to see the sights.
From across the country, folks flock to McAdenville for the display. Publications nationwide (from Southern Living to Pioneer Woman) have reveled in McAdenville's draw, sparked interest, joy and nostalgia for one of the most sought-after Christmas traditions.
Picture it: soft chimes and classic Christmas songs reverberate all around. People of all ages and walks of life shout “Merry Christmas” from windows and porches. You’re sipping a hot chocolate, gloved hands wrapped around your warm cup. Lights surround you, glowing red, green, and white in the trees, in the yards, and on the houses and storefronts.
There’s the nativity scene that’s always placed by the Baptist church, and the McAden Mills Bell Tower is illuminated in the distance. A sparkling star hovers above. Welcome to Christmas Town U.S.A.
Christmas Town U.S.A. was born in 1956, but McAdenville’s history begins long before that. In 1881, North Carolina state legislature chartered a cotton mill to be opened in the area with Colonel Rufus Yancey McAden at the helm as president. The town was incorporated that same year. Colonel McAden, who had prior experience in politics and banks, led the mill to great success.
McAden Mills quickly grew to be the largest mill in Gaston County. People came from across North and South Carolina to work in the McAden Mill because it promised security and comfortable housing. The mill also became widely known and drew in many curious workers because of its unique, ornate architecture and turrets that made it unlike any other mill of the time. In 1883, Thomas Edison was asked to build a hydroelectric generator to light the mill and the mill houses, making it the first textile mill to have electricity, and attracting even more people. In a way, lights have always been a big part of what draws people to McAdenville.
The 1930s brought trouble for McAden Mills and the town. Economic hardship led to the closure of the mill, leaving many townspeople jobless and impoverished. However, in 1939, a man named William Pharr saw potential in the struggling town and its empty mill. He brought the three mill buildings as well as a handful of homes. His revitalization of the mill and charitable work throughout the town brought about an exciting renaissance.
Today, Pharr Yarns remains the largest employer and landowner in the town, and plays a pivotal role in making the yearly fun possible.
How Christmas Town U.S.A. Came to Be
There are a few versions of the story, but the most popular version is this:
In 1956, members of the McAdenville Men’s Club endeavored to decorate the evergreens outside the McAdenville Community Center. They used red, green, and white lights to decorate nine trees that year. The result was so beautiful that it seemed to inspire a particularly strong sense of community in McAdenville that Christmas. William Pharr, the man who’d bought McAden Mills and revitalized the town nearly two decades before, saw what a positive impact the decoration had on the community. He asked the members of the Men’s Club to put up as many decorations as they possibly could, telling them not to worry about the cost; he would foot the bill.
From there, the tradition spread like the flame in a candlelight Christmas service. The displays got bigger and better year by year, and nearly every household in town participated. With time, the festivities became widely recognized and it was branded as Christmas Town U.S.A. with a registered trademark in 1993. Still, it grew and grew, with more visitors showing up with each passing year as exploring Christmas Town U.S.A. became a yearly tradition for droves of families from across the Carolinas and beyond.
If you’re one of the many visitors who has delighted in Christmas Town U.S.A.’s sights and sounds and thought to yourself, “The power bill must be through the roof. Who is paying for all this? And who puts it up and takes it down?” then you’re not alone.
While residents are not required to deck the halls, most do and William Pharr was true to his word. Pharr Yarns continues to pick up the tab to this day, in recognition of their commitment to and passion for the McAdenville community and in honor of the way the lights and decorations bring people together in a heartwarming reflection of the Christmas spirit.
Christmas Town U.S.A. By the Numbers
$0.00 : The price of admission to see the lights and decorations of Christmas Town U.S.A. It’s volunteer-operated and completely free to the public.
1.3 miles : The length of the route you’ll walk or drive when you visit (although you can check out a little extra if you’re on foot - Church Street and Academy Street are closed to traffic because they’re dead ends).
9 trees : The number of trees decorated in McAdenville in 1956 when the Christmas tradition got its start.
26 nights : The duration of the annual Christmas Town U.S.A. celebration. It lasts from December 1st through 26th.
65 years : The amount of time McAdenville has been making its yearly transformation, as of 2020.
160 homes : The number of homes decorated throughout McAdenville every Christmas season.
250+ evergreens : The number of evergreen trees in Christmas Town U.S.A., all lit up with green, white, and red bulbs -- not to mention the other illuminated trees.
300+ buses : The number of tour buses estimated to take the route through Christmas Town U.S.A. each year.
651 people : McAdenville’s population according to the most recent census.
500,000 people : The approximate number of visitors who explore McAdenville each December.
500,000+ lights : More than half a million bulbs are illuminated throughout McAdenville each year to bring the Christmas Town U.S.A. spectacle to life.
Want to Visit?
December 1-26, 2020, Daily, 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m.
Every day from December 1st through December 26th, 2020, you can walk or drive through McAdenville to see its transformation into Christmas Town USA. Each day, the lights will be shining from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Though some of the events visitors have come to expect have shifted this year, McAdenville has found creative ways to keep the Christmas connectivity alive. The annual Christmas Town 5K, which will be held virtually, keeps the focus on the community and supports projects and organizations like the Thread Trail, McAdenville Elementary School, and the local YMCA. While things might look a little different in this 65th year, Christy Gliddon of Pharr Yarns says it well: “One thing that remains constant is the reason for the lights. We look forward to welcoming festive families to McAdenville for a joyful and healthy Christmas Town U.S.A.”
Gaston Outside Pro Tip: If your schedule allows, visiting Monday-Thursday may allow you to dodge the crowds. The highest attendance tends to occur on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights.