Minutes before 6 p.m., Connie Barner announces to about 50 people gathered at the American Legion, Post 424, in downtown Hartsburg, “Get your coats on!”
Bells at the two churches in town ring together as people trickle out of the single-story Legion hall and congregate in the street. They slowly form a three-quarter moon around a 12-foot-high tree between the Hartsburg Cycle Depot and The Itching Post bar.
With mothers holding their children, grandparents bundled in winter coats and both of the new ministers in town looking on, Barner throws the switch and — cheers erupt! — the tree bursts into incandescent color.
After a prayer and few announcements, the caroling begins. “O come, all ye faithful ...”
The holiday gathering has been a tradition in Hartsburg for 16 years. Barner, one of the coordinators of the lighting ceremony, says proudly, “We didn’t even miss 1993” — the year the Missouri River flooded.
Although the tradition is based on a similar ceremony at Crown Center in Kansas City, the 103 residents of the small river bottom town make it all their own.
“It’s a great way to acknowledge the people that had celebrated in the past who are not with us anymore,” Barner says as she fights back tears. “And it gives us a chance to say ‘hi’ to our neighbors.”
After singing a dozen or so songs around the tree, the group splits in two. Half of the people head down N. Second Street to continue the caroling, and the other half head for the warmth and food of the Legion hall.
Quickly, a line forms inside, snaking around the folding chairs and tables covered with red plastic tablecloths.
Mayor Nancy Grant is stationed at the punch bowl toward the front of the potluck buffet and dons a set of red reindeer antlers. She greets the people of her town as they pass by and fill their plates.
The spread is solid potluck fare — cheese and pimento sandwiches, little wieners, shrimp dip, fruit cocktail, crackers, and a sampling of cakes and bars.
“Every time we get together here it usually involves food,” Grant’s husband, Mike Rodemeyer, says as he spoons globs of nacho cheese from a crockpot. The pot is about empty, and the cheese is becoming the consistency of rubber.
But tonight, as the hall swells with a 120 or so people — more than the population of the town — it’s about more than eating. It’s about community.
“This is home,” Barner says.