The National Christmas Center’s Paradise location closed its doors in January of 2018. Notwithstanding its partial resurrection in Elizabethtown this holiday season, its shuttering represented yet another brick removed from the wall that is Lancaster County’s unique and kitschy tourism past.
When it opened in 1998, The National Christmas Center and Family Attraction (that was, and continues to be, a mouthful) was following in a long line of unique and quirky attractions in the county. You could ramble from room to room and visit areas as disparate as a recreation of a Woolworth’s store circa the 1950’s, to a walkthrough, life-size, biblically accurate, diorama of the ancient town of Bethlehem.
The Christmas Center was a hodgepodge of all kinds of holiday ephemera. Collections of decorations, vintage toys, a train room, a collection of nativities from around the world, it really went on and on and on. It even dabbled in some animatronic entertainment with a walk-through Victorian story featuring animals embroiled in some sort of wacky yule time hijinks. But what it lacked in focus, it made up for in quantity. If you couldn’t find something that sparked yuletide nostalgia in this place, you weren’t looking hard enough.
To be fair, to properly enjoy the attraction you had to be a fan of what I call “nostalgia nostalgia.” That is to say being nostalgic for time periods you only ever experienced secondhand. I grew up primarily in the 1980’s and you would be hard pressed to find items solely from that era represented at the National Christmas Center. The time period for peak Christmas nostalgia, based on this collection (and to be honest a lot of American Christmas culture) seems to be cemented in the early 1950’s. Much like the fate of our nation over the past 70 years, the baby boomers continue to grasp control of holiday wistfulness in their rapidly fading, but still firm grip.
It is interesting that my parent’s age group never fully let go of their childhood Christmas’s. Their influence on the season is so acute that a fair amount of my generation more firmly identify the trappings of the holiday season with Bing Crosby, bubble lights, and BB Guns, than with decked out shopping malls, Transformers, and Band Aid. Even in the newly re-opened Christmas Center, they’re doubling down on nostalgia nostalgia with a re-creation of an entire city street from the 50’s. A time period the majority of their patrons will only have experienced through tales from their grandparents and Back to the Future movies.
Even though its gaze was frozen in time, the National Christmas Center’s stint as a standalone roadside attraction was not, closing after a twenty-year run. Its location in Lancaster County always seemed a strange match. Sure, the Pennsylvania Dutch, Amish, and Mennonite communities who are the primary drivers for tourism in the area have their own faith-driven Christmas traditions. And while there were slight nods to that connection in the museum, the bulk of the displays always seemed a little more weighted towards the secular parts of the holiday. This mainstream view of Christmas isn’t necessarily in line with the “Dutchy” way of doing things, so that connection was tenuous at best. Perhaps Allentown-adjacent Bethlehem would have been a better fit. At the very least the marketing would have been easier. The trifold brochure title nearly writes itself.
Although Amish country itself will always make Lancaster County special, I truly believe it’s places like the National Christmas Center combined with other truly local businesses and attractions that collectively make a locale unique. Increasingly, places like the National Christmas Center disappear from our communities only to be replaced with chain restaurants and big box stores you can visit in any other state. Then again, maybe I’m indulging in my own bit of nostalgia nostalgia. Lionizing the dusty remnants of local history, holding on to a more comforting vision of a past I never really knew.
NATIONAL CHRISTMAS CENTER PHOTO GALLERY