Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 12/17/21

Small Town Christmas celebrates the goodness that makes America great. Much of that goodness, of course, can be found in the flyover country like those devastated by last weekend’s deadly tornadoes. While that tragedy demonstrates the grit, heart and faith of those generally uncelebrated people, the four-episode UPtv docuseries (airing Sunday nights at 9:00 PM ET) focus on small town America in celebration mode. Thankfully, according to my information, none of the communities featured on the program were directly impacted by the twisters.

The first two episodes of  Small Town Christmas were watched by about 772-thousand viewers. My conversation with host/executive producer Megan Alexander (Inside Edition), which took place prior to the events of last weekend, follows the trailer below.

JWK: How did the concept for Small Town Christmas come about?

Megan Alexander: You know, John, I’ve been a fan of Christmas my whole life. I fell in love with the holiday when I saw The Nutcracker as a five-year-old girl. That to me is some of the most beautiful music…ever created. I actually walked down the aisle at my wedding to The Nutcracker music – even though I got married in January. Obviously, being a Christian, it’s Jesus‘ birth. It’s the most important day of the year for those of us that believe.

I also just love the traditions. I love learning what families do…Do they open their presents on Christmas Eve? Do they open them on Christmas morning? I have kids and I love to travel during the holidays and see what small towns do in their local parade or how do they do their Christmas festival a little different?

For a couple of years now, I thought it would be so neat to have a holiday travel show where we bring the magic of these small towns at Christmas to viewers. Not being able to travel for a while during COVID made me miss it so much I thought, gosh, when things open up again (and) if I could pull this off, I would love to produce this show – and UPtv said “Let’s do it!” (So) we formed a partnership and we’re able to do it this year with our first season. 

JWK: I read the interview you did for Patheos where you noted that, while holiday movies and specials are plentiful, most of them don’t focus on the religious roots and meaning of the day. Do you think this show would likely have flown on another network?

MA: That is a great question and that is something, John, that was very important to me – that we go into churches and we talk about what they preach on Christmas Eve. That has been such a delight of mine. Every episode features something spiritual.

In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (Episode 2) – a town that takes their name very seriously – I sat down with (Pastor) Hopeton Clennon of the Central Moravian Church and he explained to me what they do in their Christmas Eve service – how it’s a tradition that church volunteers hand-make the candles in the basement of the church…and the reason that they tie a red ribbon on these candles is it’s a reflection of Christ’s blood, His love for us (and) His sacrifice for us.

Over to Summerville, South Carolina -which was our first episode – I have a wonderful interview with Father Scott of St. Paul’s Church (who) explains to me what he preaches on Christmas Eve and how he tries to explain the real story of Santa Claus. St. Nick was a bishop in the fourth century in the Church who loved Jesus, served the poor and carried a staff. That’s why we have candy canes.

So, it all comes back to faith for me – and, John, I would add that these churches in these small towns are still the center of so much activity during the holidays. It used to be that way, right? It used to be that the church was sort of the anchor of so much life and culture. We’ve fallen away from that – especially in the big cities – but the small towns still have it. The pastor or the priest is very aware of the local businesses and their people. They know each other’s name when they walk into church on Christmas Eve. We bring that to viewers.

JWK: Did you grow up in a small town?

MA: I grew up in Edmonds, Washington which is north of Seattle and, yes, it is a small town (so) I also got to experience some of this – whether it was our local tree lighting, local Christmas parade (or) a smaller church where people do know your name. I have also experienced big cities. I lived in New York City full-time for seven years and all that that is. It’s just a totally different feel. Especially having kids now, I like to bring (them) to travel to small towns to experience that culture. I now reside in Franklin, Tennessee with my family which is a smaller town as well and just really appreciate the community feel that a small town brings.

JWK: Getting back to television, do you have any thoughts on why most Christmas specials these days don’t focus much on the religious aspect of Christmas?

MA: That’s a really good point…We are unapologetically talking about it. UPtv said “You bet! Go about your faith! Visit churches!” Again, it’s part of the Christmas celebration. These Christmas songs, John, that are sung during Christmas time are worship songs! So, even though people may feel that Christ, Jesus and the Reason for the Season are not mentioned on the major channels, I’m still encouraged by the fact that the lyrics of these classic Christmas songs that you hear during the holiday – like O Holy Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing (and) Glory to God in the Highest (are) some of the most beautiful worship songs. So, you know, I’m just doing my small part and, hopefully, it will rub off on some other people. But, I hear you. That was a big motivator for me – to put this on television because I don’t think we have enough of it and we don’t acknowledge the true Reason for the Season.

JWK: After visiting all these small towns, do you find yourself reassured and inspired about the spirit and future of the country?

MA: Oh, deeply inspired! The spirit is completely alive! I’ll tell you what impressed me so much is the spirit of the local businesses in these towns.

For example, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania – our second episode – they’re the only small town in the country that performs a Live Advent  Calendar with their local businesses. Literally, somebody knocks on a door in Downtown Bethlehem and the door opens and a local (merchant) walks out and talks about what they’re offering the people. We bring that to the viewers. And they all (promote) each other! I would call one store and they’d say “Hey, make sure you check in with this man over at this store!” or “This lady at the hotel would be a great interview for you!” They’re always looking beyond themselves and they’re looking out each other – which I found incredibly encouraging.

The other thing, John, is the crowds. In Summerville, South Carolina – which is our fourth and final episode in Season 1 – (they told me) the downtown tree lighting (brought out) the largest crowd they have ever seen! It was something like 10,000 people in this teeny-tiny town about 20 minutes outside of Charleston! I asked “Why do you think that is? Why do you think so many people are showing up?” They said, like me, they really missed it during COVID and so they’re so excited to experience that fellowship. I also think people are reflecting and wanting to be in an area where they feel that community and they’re not just a number.

So, yes, the Christmas Spirit is so alive and well! And…all of the pastors that I spoke to tell me that, often times, they don’t have enough room on Christmas Eve and they have to get multiple locations to continue to broadcast their service because the church is so packed. That greatly warms my heart.

JWK: Hopefully the pandemic is winding down but how are these small businesses managing to cope?

MA: That’s a great question. They’re hanging in there. Local tourism is very important to these towns.

I bring up Bethlehem, Pennsylvania again. The Historic Hotel Bethlehem – which we feature in the second episode – the marketing director there told me “We’re so excited to welcome people back! We miss people and we definitely need people to begin traveling again.” So, they’re hanging in there but they need our support. The Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem is the oldest continuously operating book shop. They almost folded a couple of years ago (until) the local university partnered with them and kept them running – but, you know, they need people walking through their doors.

All the way to Rob and Kathy (Zdenek) who operate the Christmas Tree Farm on Mistletoe Lane in Summerville, South Carolina. They’ve operated their Christmas tree lot for ten years. They’re hanging in there but they’re like “We need people to come and travel and get the word out!” They said “We’re doing okay in terms of our supply of Christmas trees.” I know there’s a story line right now of maybe there’s a shortage of real Christmas trees but Rob and Kathy assured me they’ve got trees! They want to get the word out and have people come. So, it was a pleasure and an honor to feature these small businesses and the faces and the people behind them.

JWK: On top of the pandemic, they’re also facing increased corporate competition – especially from online giants like Amazon.   How are they managing to cope with that?

MA: Well, I think homemade and heartfelt, you can’t beat it.

In a lot of these stores they say “Hey, we carry local vendors.” There was a lady that I interviewed in Summerville, South Carolina who runs a local craft shop. She carries local painters for her Christmas paintings (and) oyster shell ornaments that come from the coast. So, they talk about each other. They promote each other. They hold parties for each other if someone has a book premiere. The community spirit is very strong that way…They’re also just very proud. I go back to the Historic Hotel Bethlehem. They have a scent that they pipe through the hotel that smells like Christmas. It smells like Fraser fir. They bottle it and sell it in their gift shop. That’s the only place in the country that you can buy it. It’s their personal scent and the recipe is a secret.

So, I think you can’t beat that homemade and heartfelt word-of-mouth and making it an experience. You know, to go and buy an ornament from Branson, Missouri…or Natchitoches, Louisiana to buy a Cajun Night Before Christmas ornament – They call Santa Papa Noel down in Louisiana – That’s a story you can tell your kids. It’s very different when you order it from Amazon and it just comes to your door. When you travel and you meet the shop owner and you walk through their door, you can’t beat the experience. I think these small towns are doing a great job giving people that experience.

JWK: You’re the host of Small Town Christmas and also the executive producer. What was it like wearing the two hats?

MA: It was a lot of work! But I was so proud to do it and bring the vision to completion. I have a great team. My film crew was pretty small. I think there were seven of us total that would go to these towns and film but I had a great team. Everybody believed in the project. I was really proud to see it through from start to finish. There’s an ownership, there’s a pride that you feel when you see the concept go from A to Z, from some idea on paper to actually being broadcast on TV. It was really fulfilling. Again, I just feel like I’m contributing in some small way to getting positive content out there.

JWK: Are you looking forward to doing more producing?

MA: Yeah, I love the travel space! I’d love to do more travel shows and talk about more things that happen in America…I have some ideas there. I would love to continue traveling and telling stories.

JWK: Anything else you you’d like to say as we wrap-up?

MA: I’ll end with this…Occasionally, people would (ask me) “What’s your angle for this show?” I said “My angle is Christmas! No angle, just Christmas!” It was a delight to do and I just think one thing we can all agree on in this rather divisive culture is Christmas…and the hope and joy that it brings.

End Note: I can certainly agree with that. Anyway, I’m recharging my battery and taking off until Monday, January 10th. Till then, I wish you all a very happy and blessed Christmas and New Year!

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

More from Beliefnet and our partners
previous posts

Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 05/20/22 Power to the People. As noted here Wednesday, this is the week of the Upfronts, the annual rite when the traditional broadcast networks and now streamers unveil their wares for the upcoming (2022-23) TV season. People can argue about the differences between […]

Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 05/18/22 This is the big week in May that the broadcast networks traditionally unveil their fall schedules to advertisers. NBCUniveral and Fox went first on Monday with Fox actually breaking tradition by announcing its new and returning shows but not putting forth the time […]

Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 05/16/22 In Jesus and Women: Beyond Feminism, theologian and mother of two Niamh M. Middleton says understanding Jesus’ teachings on sexual equality lights the way forward for society today while greatly enrich our understanding of His divinity. JWK: You are a theologian and a […]

Here’s the latest from the crossroads of faith, media & culture: 05/13/22 The Biden Administration’s response to a shortage of baby formula: More abortions! Who says they don’t understand supply and demand. I exaggerate (slightly) but the official reaction to both the events following the recent leaking of a Supreme Court draft decision indicating that […]