Town Recreates Famous Rockwell Holiday Painting

Massachusetts community reenacts "Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas."

ByCHRIS BURY via logo
December 12, 2009, 1:40 PM

STOCKBRIDGE, Mass., Dec. 13, 2009— -- In this tiny New England village, nestled in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts, children catch falling snowflakes on their tongues as Christmas carolers serenade passers-by from the porch of a sprawling old inn.

It looks like a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. In fact, it is.

Rockwell lived and worked here during the last 25 years of his life, before his death in 1978 at the age of 84. In his Stockbridge studio, Rockwell completed his holiday classic, "Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas."

The oil painting now hangs in the Norman Rockwell museum outside Stockbridge.

Chief curator Stephanie Plunkett said the painting "was meant to evoke the quintessential American holiday, to evoke a sense of warmth and peace ... that would make people all over the country, possibly all over the world, feel as though they had come home for Christmas."

Rockwell and Christmas had a deep and lasting relationship. His holiday covers for the old Saturday Evening Post are among his most popular works.

Museum curator Plunkett called Rockwell, "the modern creator of the holiday," who created the "sense of what Santa looked like and felt like, what it (Christmas) meant to us all, a season of good will, of charity, of cheer."

In 1956, Rockwell got another Christmas assignment -- this time from McCall's magazine -- to illustrate the following year's holiday edition.

It would take him more than a decade to complete, resulting in a December, 1967 magazine pullout section called simply, "Home for Christmas."

Rockwell worked painstakingly from a series of more than a hundred photographs that depicted the scenes along Main Street in Stockbridge in the days before Christmas.

The assignment took 11 years to finish, Plunkett explains, because Rockwell, then the country's most popular illustrator, was swamped with other work and because he preferred sketching human faces to painting landscapes.

Town Captures Nostalgia of Christmases Past

For 20 years, Stockbridge has strived to capture the magic of Rockwell's Christmas painting. So every December, this quaint New England town sets out to re-create the spirit of that famous holiday scene.

At this time of year, Main Street comes alive with tourists eager to get a sense of the Rockwell experience. Vintage cars move into place, appearing as they did in the classic painting, including a red 1955 Mercury with a Christmas tree on the roof.

Many of the brightly decorated shops lining Main Street look just as they did in the 42-year-old painting. The glaring exception is the sprawling Red Lion Inn, dark after the summer season in Rockwell's day, and now lit up for the holidays when it enjoys a brisk business banking on the nostalgia of Christmases past.

Surveying the holiday crowds, Stockbridge police chief Richard Wilcox, who once worked as Rockwell's model, said he believes people who come here this time of year are trying to touch something that the painting evoked.

"I think it reflects what everybody's ideal Christmas would be, Main Street all decorated," Wilcox said. "I think that's what painting is. It's emotion on canvas. He was able to capture that."

That emotion endures in the snow-covered New England town that Norman Rockwell made famous, a place, frozen in time, that still seems to shout, "Home for Christmas," no matter where you live.