Welcome to Christmas City

It’s the season of giving for Rupert celebrants

It’s the season of giving for Rupert celebrants

By Dianna Troyer

Special postage was
created in honor of Rupert as Christmas City, USA. Photo courtesy of Amanda Larson

In Rupert, the Christmas season is more about giving than receiving.

For decades, countless volunteers have given their time to organize the Rupert Christmas Festival, centered like a Hallmark movie set at the town’s dazzling square. Events there warm holiday celebrants’ hearts throughout December.

The spirit of the season resonates even among the youngest local residents in their requests to Santa.“You’d be surprised what children ask for,” says Scott Draper, director of operations for Project Mutual Telephone in Rupert by day and Santa after hours. “There have been many tears shed due to children’s humble requests.

“Some have meekly asked for loved ones who have passed on to return, parents who have left to return, or gifts for family members in other areas or for those who are incarcerated.”

He recalls a boy with Down syndrome reaching for Santa.

“His mother told me he usually doesn’t go to anyone,” Scott says. “When he came to Santa that night, it was special for him, his mother and me.”

Santa chats with children at the square’s radiant gazebo the three Saturdays leading up to Christmas.

“Children truly believe that Santa may bring anything, solve everything and share magic,” Scott says.

Scott first became Santa in 2002 to deliver gifts provided by his workplace.

“I knew these families had small children, so I mentioned Santa needed to be the one to deliver the gifts,” he says. “I was immediately given the job.”

The next year, the city of Rupert needed Santa to help with the town’s Christmas lighting ceremony.

“Someone suggested me, and I’ve had the honor ever since,” he says. “That opportunity has morphed into many other opportunities to spread Christmas cheer through Santa.”

Christmas City, USA

Rupert’s city square is radiant during the holiday season. Photo courtesy of the Rupert Police Department

Besides talking to children, Santa has another equally important job: turning on the lights at the square to start the festival and to celebrate Rupert’s 25th year as the official Christmas City, USA.

In 1987, Governor Cecil Andrus signed a proclamation giving Rupert its noteworthy name. He cited residents’ previous two decades of “adorning their streets and city square with festive lights to welcome visitors in celebration of the ideal of peace on Earth.”

Collectible porcelain ornaments and a special postage cancellation were created to celebrate the honor.

To ensure Rupert lives up to its name, city employees embrace the task of stringing thousands of lights, setting up displays and hanging Christmas City, USA, banners above the streets.

“With all hands on deck, it takes about 4 days in mid-November to get it all ready,” says Roger Davis, Rupert Fire Department chief.

They know their hard work will attract thousands of celebrants the Friday evening after Thanksgiving when Roger oversees the arrival of Santa followed by a fireworks show.

Instead of guiding reindeer from his sleigh, Santa accepts a ride on a vintage 1941 Seagrave fire truck festooned with lights. He strolls to the square’s gazebo and flips a switch, marking the official start of the holiday season for Rupert.

“All the streetlights are turned off to give extra emphasis to only the square being illuminated,” Roger says. “After people have a moment to absorb the lighted displays and scenery, the fireworks show starts. The streetlights are turned back on after we’re done to ensure the only lights are the Christmas lights and fireworks.”

Like a Hallmark Movie Set

Santa listens to the songs of the season at the square’s gazebo. Photo courtesy of Taylor Draper

Behind the scenes, Amanda Larson organizes a Christmas market at the square. Vendors open their festive booths from 5 to 9 p.m. December 2 and noon to 9 p.m. the next day.

“We tell vendors, ‘Why watch a Hallmark movie, when you can be in one?’” she says. “Being at the square during December really does make you feel like you’re on a Hallmark movie set with all the decorations and the ice-skating rink. It feels magical and relaxed. The square radiates wonder and such a good Christmas feeling with a sense of caring and service to others.”

The Christmas City, USA, Facebook and Instagram accounts post the busy schedule of holiday events, including a “Messiah” singalong at the historic Wilson Theatre adjacent to the square, movies, concerts, cookie decorating and train rides.

To keep the season bright every year, the Christmas Lighting Committee hosts fundraising meals at the square, using profits to buy fireworks and displays.

For more than 4 decades, members have hosted a Fourth of July pancake breakfast and a chili supper the day after Thanksgiving.

“Seeing kids’ eyes light up and their faces brighten when they feel the spirt of the season makes it all worthwhile,” says Steve Gibson, 68, committee chairman and one of its three founding members. “Rupert is unique, having the square and theater nearby as the center of town for holiday events.”

He says his volunteerism is a way to give back to his hometown and ensure those who come will have happy holiday memories.

“I’ve been on the committee since I was in my 20s and don’t see myself ever quitting,” he says. “I remember Santa coming to the square on a fire engine when I was a boy. Kids were given paper bags with an orange, peanuts and some candy.”

The holiday season’s finale is a New Year’s Eve celebration at the square. To provide a localized version of the shimmering ball at Times Square, a-22-foot-tall illuminated metal replica of a sugar beet—in honor of local farmers’ mainstay crop and nicknamed Crystal—is lowered by crane.

“We try to make the holidays here memorable for everyone,” Amanda says. “Hopefully, those feelings of joy will carry over throughout the coming year.”