The Christmas Spirit

 

The Shiloh Museum’s “Merry Ozark Christmas” entry for the Christmas Parade of the Ozarks.

I came bounding in from a Downtown Springdale Alliance (DSA) public events committee meeting a month or so ago and announced to my co-workers that “we just have to participate in this year’s Christmas parade!” I felt it was the least we could do to support the work of DSA to breathe new life into our historic downtown district and also to support the Rodeo of the Ozarks‘ long-standing tradition of staging a community Christmas parade.

My co-workers quickly rose to the challenge. Research specialist Rachel Whitaker, a farm girl from way back, offered a tiny two-wheeled cart pulled by her miniature pony, Goliath. Tom Oppenheim, devoted husband of our photo archivist, Marie Demeroukas, harvested a Charlie Brown-esque cedar tree for Goliath to haul in the cart. Marie herself decorated the tree with paper chains and strings of popcorn. Her only nod to store-bought decorations was a battery-operated string of lights. (Since it’s a nighttime parade, each parade entry is required to include some kind of lighting.) The final touch was provided by collections manager Carolyn Reno, who conjured up sign painters of long ago to create hand-lettered “Shiloh Museum” signs for each side of the cart. Rachel would lead Goliath on the parade route, with Marie and director Allyn Lord walking behind the cart, passing out candy canes to kids along the way.

We timed our parade-day production carefully. Rachel’s dad, Terry Whitaker, would travel fifty miles from the Whitaker farm in Oklahoma, arriving at the museum with Goliath and the cart at 2:00 p.m. There, our groundskeeper, Marty Powers, would install the Christmas tree in the cart and Marie would add the decorations. Carolyn’s signs, painted a couple days prior, would then be hung on the cart with care. While all this prep work was going on, Rachel would be driving as fast as speed limits would allow as she headed to Springdale from Oklahoma City, where she had attended the Moscow Ballet’s performance of the Nutcracker the night before. (Never tell me that farm girls don’t have culture.)

Terry and Rachel Whitaker get ready to hitch Goliath to the pony cart.

The pre-parade setup went off without a hitch. I had the opportunity to meet Goliath, a handsome sorrel who appeared calm and ready for his public debut. (Terry Whitaker had been working with Goliath for several weeks prior to the parade to get him accustomed to pulling the cart amidst the sights and sounds of a joyful holiday crowd.) The Shiloh Museum equestrian entry entourage—Goliath, Rachel, Terry, Marie, and Allyn—headed to the rodeo grounds for the 4:45 p.m. check-in.

The sun was setting as dozens of parade entrants took their place in line: fire trucks, police cars, floats great and small, car clubs, Girl Scouts, dogs and their owners, horseback riders, and us. Excitement was building for the 6:00 p.m. parade kickoff, when The Unlucky Turn of Events occurred. A full-size horse and rider trotted by Goliath, which spooked our tiny steed. Bear in mind, he’s a little guy, only a couple of feet tall. As Rachel remembers it, “Goliath tried to crawl under me for protection from the big horse.” That’s when Goliath’s harness broke.

Not to be deterred, Rachel and Terry decided they would just walk alongside Goliath and act as a human harness. This plan was foiled when a Belgian horse and a mule espied Goliath, became leery of such a small beast, and started acting up. At that point, Rachel decided it would be best for all equine and human parade participants if Goliath bowed out and returned to the safe confines of his trailer.

So here it is: a pony cart decked out for an Ozark Christmas, with no pony. Some lesser mortals might have thrown up their hands and called it a day. But Rachel and Terry Whitaker are no mere mortals. Their solution? They stepped in for Goliath. They hitched themselves to the cart and pulled it along the entire parade route. Marie and Allyn donned elf hats and  proudly escorted the Shiloh Museum pony cart down Emma Avenue, handing out candy canes along the way.

I was watching the parade from the sidelines on Emma Avenue, near the halfway mark of the parade route. By the time I laid eyes on our pony cart, Rachel and Terry had consumed a goodly amount of exhaust fumes from the car club in front of them. Marie and Allyn had run out of candy canes about six blocks ago. All four of them looked bone-tired, yet they were full of holiday spirit. The sight made me a bit misty-eyed.

A simple little pony cart with no pony turned out to be one of the most genuine portrayals of Christmas spirit I’ve ever seen.

Oh, and by the way, our pony cart won first prize in the parade’s equestrian division!

Terry and Rachel Whitaker with our first place trophy.

 

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