Bundled up in winter hats and down coats, hundreds of people strolled from church to church in downtown Newark during the 21st annual Sights and Sounds of Christmas event, marking the arrival of the Christmas season in Licking County.
“This is the best kept secret in Newark! I’m glad to see more and more people each year,” said one participant.
“Isn’t this just beautiful!” chimed in another.
“This is my favorite event of the year,” said yet another. “You really get a taste of the Christmas flavor!”
The excited chatter of attendees could be heard throughout the guided walking tour of historic downtown churches on Thursday, Dec. 7. The event, designed to bring Christmas cheer to the young and old, featured a musical performance at each stop on the tour.
Not only was it a good excuse to show off your best Christmas sweater and enjoy holiday tunes, the Sights and Sounds of Christmas also provided an opportunity for community service: Proceeds from ticket sales went to the Licking County Food Pantry Network. According to foodpantrynetwork.net, more than 9,000 residents of Licking County struggle with food insecurity. Money raised by the event will provide Licking County residents with fresh produce markets, a daily soup kitchen, and on-site food distribution.
At the tour’s starting location, Second Presbyterian Church, organ and harp music lured visitors up the church stairs and out of the cold. As guests trickled in, Marybeth Matthews, a member of Second Presbyterian, divided them into Green and Red groups. Each group would follow a unique route led by a “lamplighter” dressed in holiday attire as they moved from church to church.
Rick Black, music director and organist at Second Presbyterian, who also is a Licking County Commissioner, kicked off the night of music in a duet with Olivia Claggett on the harp.
Surrounded by poinsettias, wreaths, and garlands, the two musicians warmed-up the audience, which was clearly filled with people making friendly reunions.
“We’ve been doing this event for 21 years, and I’ve been here for all of them,” Black said.
During his welcome message, Black requested a show of hands for all the first-timers in the audience. A mass of hands shot up in the air, and a delighted look came over Black’s face.
“Licking County is the best county in the state of Ohio, so thank you for coming out to celebrate it!” he said.
And with that, hundreds of feet took to the sidewalks of Newark, which were lined with paper-bag luminaries. The Green group headed toward Trinity Episcopal Church, which featured a choir of elves and reindeer. The Crystal City Chorus of Newark, directed by Karen Boyer, sang Christmas classics with a jazzy twist. Boyer even engaged the audience with knock-knock jokes and a holiday sing along.
“I encourage you to focus not on the presents underneath the tree and instead on being present with family and friends this Christmas season,” said Boyer, setting the tone for the evening ahead.
With the help of the Newark police officers, who guided traffic and cleared a path through downtown streets, the Green group made its way to Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, giving fist-bumps to people in the Red group as they passed. In the packed and warm sanctuary, three young singers gave a passionate rendition of “Silent Night.” The small but mighty adult choir, decked in red, followed with lively gospel music, practically shouting from the rooftops that Christmas in Licking County is here.
Next on the tour came First Presbyterian, where a soothing organ and piano duet filled the ornate sanctuary. The crowd listened intently to the music, relishing the much-needed pause in the hustle and bustle of this time of year.
The Green group marched onward through alleyways – occasionally breaking into song with impromptu carols – toward the Licking County Courthouse, aglow with Christmas lights of many colors. Adding to the spectacle, Newark High School musicians braved the cold to deliver Christmas spirit to the audience.
“Our marching band had our most successful season in over 20 years thanks to all the support from the public,” said Lee Auer, director of bands at Newark High. Auer invited all attendees to sing along with his students as they played holiday tunes.
The sixth stop on the tour was St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, featuring the Jubilate Ringers. The bell choir, directed by Dustin Hill, brought a fresh sound to the ears of travelers.
“This event always happens as we are entering into the darkest time of the year, so we light candles and join together through music as a way of bringing hope,” said the Rev. Martin Gehring of St. Paul’s.
Volunteers from St. Paul’s congregation, wearing bright orange vests, helped direct the crowd across a new roundabout to First United Methodist Church a few steps away, where guests enjoyed a performance by the Praise Team. After traversing crosswalks and climbing countless staircases, the warmth of the second-to-last tour location was especially pleasant. With the help of a little fuel from goodie bags filled with candy, First Church sent the Green group on to the final stop of the tour.
At St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, just up the street from St. Paul’s and First Church, the Green and Red groups reunited for one final musical performance by the Parish choir and a cookie reception. Brought together by holiday music, members of the Licking County community exchanged well-wishes for the season and left the church filled with Christmas spirit.
Katie Corner writes for TheReportingProject.org, the nonprofit news organization of the Denison University Journalism Program, which is funded in part by the Mellon Foundation and donations from readers.