The following article by Sandy Schaefer Wilkinson appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of the White River Valley Historical Society Quarterly.
Many times I’ve heard how our Ozark folks are not ashamed to display their deep-seated passions for keeping Christ in Christmas, for our Veteran’s salute, and the All American Pride that is displayed every day of the year. One of the highlights of these passions for me is the Branson Adoration Scene, or as some call it, the Nativity Scene. Either way you label it, it makes me feel good about where I live, and that my friends and neighbors feel the same way I do.
Every year on the first Sunday in December, we would pack up the kids, coats, gloves, and hot chocolate and head to Downtown Branson to watch the Adoration Parade, and the lighting of the Adoration Scene atop Mount Branson. Back in the day, everything in Downtown Branson closed while this went on. No restaurants, no coffee, and no restrooms. This was done so that no one had to work during this annual event. We all brought our blankets and anything that would warm us up while watching the Ceremonial lighting, parade floats, the Shriners, listening to the bands, and being shoulder-to-shoulder with literally thousands of people who enjoyed this nostalgic event that added so much to everyone’s Christmas Holidays. I even remember many years parking an extra car in the Hart’s Supermarket parking lot so that we had a warm car to sit in while waiting for the parade, or was it because my grandma and grandpa had a place to sit?
But, how did this tradition get started? I remember stories that I heard when I was “just a kid” about a guy who was an artist and he just drew it up and painted it. Well, that was kind of close, but in reality, I’ve found out the real version.
In a letter that appeared in the Branson Beacon newspaper in the 1950s, written by Nadine Miller, wife of Steve Miller, she recounted how the Adoration Scene and parade first started:
“Meeting for their usual morning coffee, Steve Miller, manager of the Owen Theatre, and Joe Todd, manager of Whelchel’s Furniture Store, started discussing how wonderful it would be to have, where all the people could see, a large Christmas-type greeting card, a Christmas gift to the people of this area. Going outside, they stood in the middle of Main and Commerce streets and looking east at Mount Branson, they knew that would be the ideal location and right then chose the spot where the Adoration Scene has been placed each year. The two men began planning the necessary steps to make their idea become reality. Steve Miller would start designing something he thought was appropriate and Todd would work on gathering contributions from area merchants to help cover the cost.” Nadine continued, “I was greatly relieved when the Chamber of Commerce agreed to financially sponsor the project. I had been afraid the Adoration Scene would be in our front yard.”
Ron Miller, Steve’s son, said in his column in 1998:
“Before the two men left the White River Grill that day, the owner gave Todd $5 to get started. While Todd was working on gathering sponsorships, Dad was busy making sketches, including one of the Adoration Scene, which is the same scene visible to this day. Joe was thinking about something to show thanks to the community and visitors. And Dad had drawn a rough sketch on a napkin there and then. The Chamber of Commerce was notified and would later come through with funds; however Dad had to go ahead and buy materials. Mom, an accountant, cringed, but Dad and Joe were men with a mission, and they really plunged into this. And what was so beautiful about this project was other people pitched in to help and were just as dedicated. First Dad did a small, color drawing of the scene about two feet by four feet with a grid. He established the right scale by hanging strips of Mom’s sheets from tree limbs over on the hill and then come back to the downtown intersection to check.” Ron went on to say there were many people that helped make this possible, which included folks like Ray Wilson, Chuck Ladd, and all the Branson mayors since, as well as Ben Parnell, Clay Cantwell, Harold Hilton, Junior Casey, Dr. R. M. Good, Dr. M. Graham Clark, and Bob Hubbard, just to name a few. As Ron said, “there were many unsung folks who line up floats, help on committees, contribute time and funds and help in many ways.”
I especially remember the beautiful Christmas music that was played back in the day by Alberta Ladd, before and during the parade. Some of those unsung folks would move an organ onto the stage that was set up for the emcee and dignitaries where she would improvise so perfectly; how lucky we were to hear these familiar melodies echoing in the streets while standing in the cold watching the parade.
While digging for more information, I found the original Nativity Scene was composed of the Manger, with Mary and Joseph, the three Kings, and the Star of Bethlehem. In 1949 the Empire District Electric Company set up bright spotlights to illuminate the display, and wired 10 light bulbs on the star, which hung 30 feet above the tallest figure. The lights they installed made the Adoration Scene visible five miles away. They were much brighter than those used today, and the electricity was free, a gift to the community from Empire Electric.
In 1950 the figures of the camel and driver, sheep, and a section of the Town of Bethlehem were added to the original scene. In 1951 the scene was again increased to include the three shepherds, a larger star and the town of Bethlehem was tripled in size. Oh, and the illumination was doubled in candle power, per the 1951 Adoration Souvenir Program book. The height of the figures was reported as 20 ft. tall and the width of the display was 300 ft. Back then the Master of Ceremonies was Vernon James, and the Welcome address was given by Mayor Claude Binkley.
The specs of the Adoration Scene have changed from generation to generation, but the most obvious overhaul was when the tornado came through Branson in February of 2012. It made its mark on the Nativity Scene leaving just two angels and one lamb in its wake. A giant star, presumed to be the star from the Scene, was blown east of town about 20 miles where two young men found it in a field and brought it to the Branson Centennial Museum, where you can see it today on the front porch. Branson committee members worked for months to bring back the Nativity Scene, just as it was envisioned by Miller and Todd and the community, all those years ago.
I’m sure almost anyone growing up in the Branson area has had the privilege to have worked on many floats, from stuffing napkins in chicken wire, to holding on tightly while riding on the floats as they stopped and started in the parade. Marching through rain, snow and the arctic cold (as a kid, it felt that way at the time) we all endured the experience of being in the famous Branson Adoration Parade.
If you’re looking for something to start a tradition in your life, bring the kids, grandkids, best friends, and anyone else who wants to experience the memorable Nativity Scene lighting and Adoration Parade. And, don’t forget to take the kids behind the scene some night up on Mount Branson; it will be something for them to remember for many years to come! I know I still remember the giant figures with blinding lights in my eyes… a good memory to have.
As Branson continues the long-standing tradition of the Adoration Scene and parade that draws thousands of people every year, I hope this experience can continue for many generations to come!
It’s worth your time, and maybe if you’re lucky, you will get to share the lighting ceremony of the Nativity Scene and enjoy the Adoration Parade with hot chocolate in hand and snowflakes on your cheeks… some might call it a ‘Kodak Moment’, but we just call it a ‘Branson Moment’.
On a personal note… the Nativity Scene lighting and Adoration Parade was always such a wonderful time of year growing up in Branson. But it was especially wondrous when Santa Claus and his sleigh brought up the end of the parade, for some reason… I almost felt like I knew him personally!
Sandy Schaefer Wilkinson, a Branson native, is currently working at the Branson Centennial Museum. Having worked with the Branson Daily News, and the Silver Dollar City Marketing Department for many years, has given her deep Branson roots. Being married to the late Larry Wilkinson, of the Wilkinson Brothers Music Show, and the daughter of Lou Schaefer, former Branson Mayor, enhances her true love of Branson even more.
This article written by Sandy Schaefer Wilkinson originally appeared in the White River Valley Historical Society Quarterly Volume 53, Number 4—Winter 2014. Click here to browse or search the archives of the Quarterly.