The Christmas spirit at the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Festival, held annually in the hometown of the actor who starred in the holiday movie classic, can best be described as infectious.
The western Pennsylvania community of Indiana honors native son Jimmy Stewart and the iconic film with an event that stretches over five weekends and is guaranteed to inspire even the Scrooges among us to break into a rousing chorus of “Jingle Bells.”
“There’s no better place to embrace the holiday season than right here,” said Denise Liggett, executive director of the Indiana County Tourist Bureau. “It’s so festive, and the downtown is decorated so beautifully. And when you add in the fact that we’re the Christmas Tree Capital of the World, you can’t get any more fa-la-la than that.”
Indiana transforms itself into a modern-day Bedford Falls for the season, the downtown buildings adorned by lights, a 30-foot evergreen towering over IRMC Park, and the aroma of roasting marshmallows wafting through the nippy nighttime air. Visitors often feel as if they’ve stepped back in time.
“Indiana’s a beautiful town all year-round, but at Christmastime it’s especially pretty,” said Linda Mitchell, executive director of Downtown Indiana Inc., a group that represents the borough’s business owners. “I think a lot of people just like coming here and seeing the lights and maybe remembering Christmases past. It’s like an old-fashioned, all-American Christmas.”
This year’s festival will kick off with a parade Nov. 16. Large crowds typically line the route, cheering the bands along with a select group of out-of-town visitors who never imagined they would play a part in the evening’s revelry.
“Bus tours come in and we give people the option of either watching the parade from the sidewalk or riding in it,” Liggett said. “The tourist bureau provides three or four long trailers, and we decorate them, put lights on them, and the people sit on bales of hay as they’re pulled through town. And they have a ball. You would think it was the Macy’s parade to these people, they’re so excited.”
The tree lighting follows at IRMC Park, right off the main street. Visitors enjoy live music, hayrides, and craft stations, not to mention hot dogs, roasted marshmallows, kettle corn, popcorn, cookies, and hot chocolate. Santa Claus takes a break from his holiday preparations to mingle with the children.
The festival continues through mid-December. Santa will be on hand every Saturday afternoon at IRMC Park, with local schools, churches, and instrumental groups providing a musical backdrop. Christmas movies — so-called Merry Matinees — are scheduled every Sunday at the Indiana Theater, where a teenage Stewart once worked as a projectionist.
The Jimmy Stewart Museum will show “It’s a Wonderful Life” daily, Nov. 17–Dec. 30, in its 1930s vintage theater. The museum features seven galleries of memorabilia highlighting Stewart’s movie and military careers, including an exhibit dedicated to the film that’s become a holiday staple.
Visitors also can tour the Clark House, a Victorian mansion that, when bedecked in holiday splendor, evokes a bygone era. The Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County will hold an open house the evening of Dec. 14, free of charge, with performances by local choirs, madrigal singers, and the Indiana Brass Band.
“We invite people to come in, enjoy the music, and have a few refreshments,” said Jonathan Bogert, executive director of the historical society. “This year, we plan on having people dressed in period attire here during the open house.”
Re-creating the past is a Christmastime tradition in Indiana, a four-hour drive from the Baltimore-Washington area. In fact, stand on the main street, with the lights twinkling and snowflakes falling, it’s easy to picture a joyful George Bailey rushing past shouting “Merry Christmas” to all as he heads home to Mary and the kids.
“People can have a family-friendly, small-town holiday experience here,” Liggett said. “The whole downtown is decorated beautifully and we offer such unique shops. So, not only do visitors have an opportunity to find the perfect gift, they have an opportunity to enjoy a Norman Rockwell Christmas.”