Ask Peary Forrest if Christmas on Deer Creek in Leland was an important part of his childhood memories, and he reacts as if it’s the most leading question he’s ever heard.
“But of course,” said Forrest, who now lives in Ridgeland but was born in Leland and grew up in nearby Greenville. “We would get in the car at night, ride over to Deer Creek and look at the Christmas floats. It wasn’t Christmas if we didn’t.
“Christmas on Deer Creek is like the rest of the Delta — simple, yet beautiful. It’s memories I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
Melia Christensen, executive director of the Leland Chamber of Commerce, says she hears that all the time from people in the Delta and across the state and country. Now, she and other Leland leaders are spearheading what promises to be the biggest Christmas on Deer Creek ever as the event celebrates its 50th anniversary.
“I got here last January, and the first meeting I was in we talked about Christmas,” said Christensen. “Then, I started hearing the stories from people everywhere. When I checked the report on our local restaurants’ sales tax, I realized we were seeing hundreds of visitors every year, but we weren’t doing enough to get them out of their car and into our shops and restaurants. That’s what we’re trying to do this year.”
What used to be a one-weekend, kick-off event is being stretched across multiple weekends in December this year. In addition to the Christmas floats, this year’s Christmas on Deer Creek will include a bevy of firsts, including pop-up stores in downtown Leland, carriage rides, tours of homes and a commemorative pictorial postmark offered by the local U.S. Post Office.
The traditional opening night celebration will be held Saturday, Dec. 6. That night will offer “Visits with Santa” for the children and the postmark event.
Christensen said the postmark event will be similar to that offered by the USPS when it released the postage stamps honoring Muppet creator and Leland native Jim Henson in 2005. People who bring in their holiday cards and letters will receive a special, first-time Deer Creek postal station mark.
On Dec. 13, the event will offer a tour of homes, hosted by the Leland Deer Creek Garden Club (tickets will include lunch at a participating local restaurant), as well as temporary “pop-up stores” housed in vacant spaces in downtown Leland and operated by out-of-town businesses.
“I came to Clarksdale with the mission of helping strengthen and grow our downtown as well as help shine a spotlight on the Delta and blues as a whole,” said Roger Stolle, who is “popping up” his Clarksdale-based Cat Head Blues & Folk Art store in Leland. “So, when I got the call from the folks in Leland, I quickly said yes. Every town has a story to tell. I might sell something, but this is about PR, education and shining a light on a Delta downtown.”
On Dec. 20, visitors will enjoy caroling along the length of Deer Creek as well as carriage rides from the historic Thompson House, which is today a popular bed and breakfast.
Local businesses stand to gain the most from the 50th-annual Christmas on Deer Creek. The chamber is planning to decorate downtown store windows with the help of the Delta Artists Association and other local volunteers to help draw customers.
“I’m 51 years old, and I know how big a tradition this is,” said Donna Shamoun, owner of Wild Magnolias Salon in Leland. “It’s just huge. So, we are pulling together to keep Leland strong. I think all of this, especially the pop-up stores, is going to really bring people in.”
While this year marks 50 years of the lights, decorated trees and quaint floats on Deer Creek, Leland’s attempt to draw holiday revelers stretches all the way back to the 1920s. According to Leland native and researcher Daryl Lewis, who spent decades teaching history in local schools, it was 1922 when citizens decided to offer a community Christmas tree and celebration. In 1937, decorations along Deer Creek were featured for the first time, and 10 years later the first tree along the waterway was decorated.
In 1962, the city unveiled plans for floats in Deer Creek, and 1965 marked the first year that the trees and floats were offered together.
“My take is that the early Leland residents wanted to offer the floats and decorations as a gift — a present to the people of the Delta and beyond,” Lewis said.
Christensen said, that “gift” will be bigger than ever this year.
“When you come through Leland this December, there will be no mistaking it’s Christmas,” says Christensen. “The holiday spirit will be everywhere.”
For more on this year’s Christmas on Deer Creek, call the Leland Chamber of Commerce at (662) 379-3764, or visit the website at www.lelandchamber.org.