Robert Hitt Neill Column
By Robert Hitt Neill
I have a pretty unique hometown: Leland, Mississippi. Of course, I don’t actually live in town, but Leland is the closest post office to Brownspur, where my house is.
At one time right after we came back from the Navy, Betsy and I did live within the city limits on the banks of Deer Creek, the beautiful little stream that runs through the middle of town. Nearly 85 years ago, the Leland Garden Club undertook the cleanup and beautification of the Creek, planting and pruning and mowing so that folks could be proud of living along its banks.
That kind of care has continued to this day, with City crews even raking out the unsightly alligator weed that has threatened to take over Deer Creek – indeed, it has in some places outside of town – and the town has enlisted the help of Ag Scientists at the nearby Stoneville Agricultural Research Experiment Station – “The Station” – in an effort to seek long-term control of the aquatic vegetation.
Leland just hosted its Annual Christmas on Deer Creek Pageant last weekend, which has been judged as one of the Top 20 Seasonal Events in the Mid-South. All hands and the cooks turnout to do their part to initiate the Christmas Season, the Birthday of Jesus, and the welcoming of Santa Claus as he rides along Deer Creek in his water-borne Sleigh.
Thousands of people come to witness the beauty of the event and join in the festivities that Leland citizens produce as a gesture of Peace On Earth, Good Will To Men for residents and tourists alike.
Christmas on Deer Creek has been going on in one form or another for 70 years. Nowadays Leland’s churches, businesses, and organizations decorate scenic floats, most about 12 x 8 feet, with elaborate Biblical and secular settings which are lighted at night as they peacefully display their tidings from the middle of the Creek.
Interspersed with the glowing floats are different-colored Christmas Trees set in the water closer to the banks.
A local firm which paints athletic field logos, including even the Super Bowl, designs and paints a Welcome that’s probably 20 yards wide by 10 yards high along a less-sloped part of the creekbank by the school.
Residents along the Creek started placing single candle-like bulbs in their windows 23 years ago, adding to the tranquility, and now homes throughout the town have adopted that theme. A slow nighttime drive along Deer Creek during December is the best way I know of to get into the Christmas Spirit.
How come a town of about 5,000 people goes to this much trouble and expense to do this every year for Christmas?
Well, obviously the natural beauty of Deer Creek – which inspired Jim Henson’s Muppets after he grew up in Leland – and the peaceful colorful lights and scenes attract tourists from far and near. Yet most of those folks come after dark, when stores are usually closed, except for the many restaurants in Leland and Stoneville. We only have a couple of motels for tourists to stay in, so that’s not it.
Deer Creek Drive doesn’t have a single toll booth along its length, and the police don’t set up Slow Driver Traps, so the City can’t be making much money off of the spectacle. Many communities which have a stream flowing through them have set up similar decorative arrangements after seeing Christmas on Deer Creek, but there is no copyright that I’m aware of, so that Leland could assess other towns with fees for copying.
Is it community pride? That’s probably part of it. This is the premier event of its kind in perhaps the whole world, although I’m sure that someone will write and say that their Christmas Festival is better than ours is, just on the old theory of “My dog’s better’n yore dog.”
Yet I’ve never seen nor heard of anything that rivals Christmas on Deer Creek, so Lelanders (including us Brownspurians) can rightly be proud of the beauty of our own homegrown attraction.
But I think it’s more than pride. I think Leland people do this every Christmas simply because it is their way of recognizing the true meaning of this season: “For God so loved the world that He GAVE….” I think Christmas on Deer Creek is this town’s way of showing to others the best Gift ever Given.
If I’m wrong, please don’t tell me. I wouldn’t believe you anyway.