DADE CITY — The ghost of Christmas past isn't far away. Look no further than Dade City during the evenings leading up to Christmas and here's what you'll see: Quaint grand homes, some of the Victorian era, fully decked with all things Christmas. Luminarias lighting the night on the brick-paved street. Carolers and choirs belting out traditional holiday tunes and hymns. Jolly ol' St. Nick and the Mrs. visiting with good girls and boys. And even a live nativity scene at the local Baptist church.
This is not a famous painting, though, the backdrop sure sounds like one. This is Church Street Christmas, which runs Wednesday through Dec. 23.
"It's a Norman Rockwell Christmas without the snow," said resident and volunteer Steve Smith. "It's that cool."
For the 33rd year, residents invite you to take a stroll along Church Avenue — not Church Street — between Ninth and 17th streets. Ask folks why it's called Church Street Christmas when the road is really an avenue, and they shrug it off.
"All I know it's just become a tradition to say it that way," said Bob Larkin, a longtime Dade City resident and Church Avenue homeowner since 2005.
Even Harriet Riddaugh, who has lived on the avenue most of her life, doesn't know.
So Church Street it is.
The tradition started more than three decades ago with the three churches on the street sponsoring the event. With a bit of controversy, the residents took it over several years ago when it was briefly canceled. Slowly, volunteer organizers are rebuilding an event that at one time drew upwards of 40,000 visitors. In more recent years, the numbers are closer 10,000 to 12,000 people per day.
"It's one of the things that brought me to Dade City," said Smith, who moved to town 19 years ago and lives in a 1901 Dutch colonial home with his family. "I don't want it to go away."
He and his neighbors continue to lure merriment seekers to this charming, historic neighborhood to celebrate Christmas.
The churches, First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian and First United Methodist, all open their doors to visitors with everything from a live nativity scene, complimentary Christmas photos and musical entertainment.
Elsewhere on the street, professional musicians such as local jazz favorite the Valerie Gillespie Ensemble, and local talents like the Dickens Carolers and the Dade City Ensemble will entertain strollers. Miss Pasco County 2011 Amanda Smith, who happens to be Steve Smith's eldest daughter, will also sing. Several church choirs will make appearances and visitors can enjoy a bell choir.
One neighbor, Riddaugh's son, Andrew, 18, orchestrates a light and music show at their home at 37403 Church Ave. And most of the homes will feature 4-by-6-foot greetings cards with special messages from homeowners. A children's toy area will be set up the McIntosh House, built in 1893 and owned by the Carey family. Santa and Mrs. Claus will make appearances at another home. Several refreshment stands will treat visitors to cupcakes, hot cocoa and more.
"I think this is one of the ways as residents to give something back to our community that's spiritual and recognizes the meaning of Christmas," Larkin said.
And the entire evening is free.
"They don't have to spend a dime except the gas to get here," Smith said.
It's the residents' gift to the community.
"It's been a positive event and it's something our entire community looks forward to," Riddaugh said.