IN AN EMPTY SANCTUARY on a Wednesday evening after supper, 12 members of the Joy Bell Ringers handbell choir gather with their director to ring out a gentle carol. It is a joyous, simple lullaby, one that leaves the listener to sing silently along as the group rehearses the melody at Dade City's First Presbyterian Church. Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy ¶ Do you hear what I hear?
There are no voices, lest you count the one in your head or the steady counting of director Jim Leininger, who later hastens the tempo for the upbeat, bouncy version of Carol of the Bells.
That's just part of a festive repertoire for tonight's performance at the annual Church Street Christmas celebration. The bell ringers are part of the throng of church choirs, choral groups and professional musicians who will perform at the 34th annual event today through Sunday on Church Avenue in downtown Dade City.
"It's tradition. It's the real meaning of Christmas," said handbell ringer Kitty Piersall, 76, of San Antonio, who will also perform a pipe organ concert this evening at the church. "We're the last church on the street. So I think people will be coming in to rest their weary feet."
Locals and visitors alike are welcome to rest a bit or enjoy a winter stroll while taking in the sights, sounds and tastes of the holiday during this year's hometown celebration.
The streets will be glowing with luminarias. Homes are lit up like, well, a Christmas tree. Santa makes an appearance along with Mrs. Claus. And three churches — First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian and First United Methodist — will offer a live nativity scene, free Christmas photos and lots of musical entertainment. There will be free offerings of spiced cider, hot cocoa and coffee. And an added twist this year is the opportunity to top your visit off with a car ride through nearby streets that will be lit with some 3,500 luminarias, courtesy of Historic Dade City Celebrations LLC.
Church Street Christmas continues to foster memories for Andrew Riddaugh. He recently returned home for winter break after completing his first semester at Florida State University, and is in charge of planning and programing the musical light display on the family's Victorian homestead.
"Ever since I was little I've helped my dad with the decorating," said Riddaugh, 19, adding that this year's visual display will be timed to the music of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, complete with a maestro seeming to conduct the illuminated symphony at a well-centered podium. "It really gets me in the spirit. Family and friends always come out. Our whole community comes together. It's a nice big time."
"It's literally the epitome of Christmas spirit," said Amanda Smith, 20. She's just back from completing her first semester studying musical theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, and will be singing at the First Baptist Church, the Kassabaum home and also on the front porch of the home she moved into with her family when she was 9. "It's kind of a winter wonderland. The Christmas spirit is everywhere. The houses are full of people and the streets are full of people."
Local professional saxophonist Valerie Gillespie said that she and her group are delighted to be back for a seventh year.
"The whole thing is pretty neat. We really look forward to it," she said, noting that her jazz group will put their special touch on the carol Mary, Did You Know (check it out on iTunes), a song she says "gives me goose bumps every time I sing it."
"I think it helps people remember what Christmas is about," Gillespie said. "It's wonderful to walk down the street and see all the performers. It's just a small-town family kind of setting. Noncommercial. You come away from it just with a warm feeling in your heart and feeling good about the small-town life and the people you celebrate with."
Michele Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7307.