Seemingly, New England has no shortage of small towns, some thriving, some dying. Stand-alone towns, those that are not merely bedroom satellites of larger cluster cities, have the best opportunity to uniquely define themselves and to avoid being part of bland suburbia. It helps if the town has a celebrity or two, some charming architecture, some arts connection and a scenic location. The Town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts has all that and more going for it.
Cradled in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts, almost on the border with New York State, it’s a destination location for those among us scouting out a feel-good New England scene at any of the four seasons. But add in the fact that Stockbridge is Norman Rockwell’s town, and you’ve also got the celebrity and artsy angles well covered. Rockwell lived and worked in Stockbridge during the last 25 years of his life. His studio on the outskirts of town complements the official Norman Rockwell Museum close by.
With Rockwell already well-known for his Christmas themed magazine covers, in 1956 McCall’s gave him the assignment to illustrate their next year's holiday edition. But that deadline was missed by a mile. It took him more than a decade to complete the works, which didn’t see print until December 1967 in a section called simply, "Home for Christmas." Rockwell’s painting of "Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas" became a large pull-out section of the magazine. The artist reportedly worked from a series of more than a hundred photographs that depicted the scenes along one side of Main Street in the days before Christmas. The original oil painting now hangs in the Rockwell museum (and a fine framed copy hangs over my fireplace!). Here is just a section of the elongated painting:
The lasting attraction of the painting is that it well captures our imaginations of an idealized New England small town at an emotion-rich time of the year. We read a lot into the images of people walking along a snowy sidewalk, kids playing in the street, and vintage cars parked while their occupants visit the no-malls-in-sight Main Street shops. The Rockwell Museum’s chief curator, Stephanie Plunkett, was filmed in an ABC news segment saying the painting "was meant to evoke the quintessential American holiday, to evoke a sense of warmth and peace ... that would make people all over the country, possibly all over the world, feel as though they had come home from Christmas."
Every year in December, Stockbridge recreates the street scene so familiar from the artist’s painting. For a few hours Main Street is blocked off and becomes the sole domain of vintage cars, horse-pulled wagons, and mingling folks. This year, my wife and I were two of those characters, poking in shops, admiring the well-restored cars and trucks, and slurping down hot clam chowder while standing in front of the Red Lion Inn enjoying the Christmas carols being sung from its porch. It was very cold, why didn’t we bring a warmer coat – we’re New Englanders – we know better? And then there was the arrive-on-cue snow showers – a gift from lake-effect snow of neighboring New York. We first hit the snow traveling east on the Mass Pike about half an hour outside of the Stockbridge area and the light snow obliged all day long. No accumulation on the roads, just the welcomed boost to the mood effect. Not all may agree I realize, but I’ll choose places like Stockbridge over South Beach any Christmas – no contest.