During the 12 years I lived in Baltimore, each December I looked forward to hitting the highway and heading west toward Frederick, the town where I was born and raised. After passing fields pale with speckled snow along Interstate 70, I’d finally arrive on Patrick Street, Frederick’s main drag, to find it lined with thousands of tiny white lights and shops bustling with activity. Beyond the storefronts, the city’s famed church steeples rose, “green-walled by the hills of Maryland,” as poet John Greenleaf Whittier described in 1864.
It’s been four years since I moved back to Frederick, and I am still unapologetically sentimental about this time of year in this city. Coming downtown during December is like stepping onto the canvas of Norman Rockwell’s America. “Dreamy,” is how one friend— a recent transplant from Baltimore who grew up on Long Island— described her first holiday in Frederick. “I thought these kind of places only existed in movies,” she once told me.
Growing up in Frederick, once the epicenter of activity for the county’s agrarian culture, you “know where you come from,” as my mother would say. Despite— and perhaps in spite of— breakneck growth and development that has transformed the 262-year-old crossroads town into a Washington, D.C., bedroom community, Frederick has managed to maintain and preserve history and tradition. And this is particularly true during the holiday season, when time seems to slow down among the town’s 18th- and 19th-century architecture; more than 2,500 buildings make up Frederick’s 50-block Historic District, established in 1952, the second in the state and the 13th in the nation. And not a weekend goes by without some event that lures folks— residents and visitors alike— downtown.
“We do value our traditions,” says Bette Shafer, who has lived in Frederick for the last 69 of her 71 years. For 22 years she has volunteered for the city’s Holiday Committee. “We have made a concerted effort to make it festive downtown,” she says of the numerous events and programs the city sponsors, such as Operation Sparkle, a friendly window display competition among downtown merchants. And, of course, there are the white lights in the trees.
“Oh my God, it’s fabulous!” says Kara Norman, who moved to Frederick from San Antonio in 2002 and is now executive director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership. “You drive in and see them for the first time, it looks so great. You turn into a little kid again.”
But Frederick’s quaintness has been tempered by cosmopolitan footprints, making the moniker “Fredneck” seem dated. More than 100 independently owned stores that specialize in everything from fly-fishing to handcrafted pottery and jewelry, vintage clothing to urban wear, can be found along East, Patrick and Market streets, along with dozens of restaurants with menus that trot the globe— Ethiopian and Cuban, Mexican and Thai, Italian and American fusion.
For many years, a good portion of my family’s holiday shopping has been done at Clyde Hicks’ outdoor store, The Trail House, a fantastic one-stop shop for the outdoorsman or woman in your life. Although you might be able to find Clyde’s products elsewhere, you’re unlikely to find the one-on-one interaction that he and his staff provide, which merchants in Frederick pride themselves upon. “When you go into the shops, more than likely you’re going to meet the owner,” says Hicks. “That’s what makes it worthwhile.”
If you are looking for hip, urban wear like limited edition T-shirts and sneakers and boutique clothing for young women, then April Reardon’s two adjacent stores, Social Study and Velvet Lounge, are the places to go. Although I love Reardon’s stores and will shop there this year, I am neither hip, urban nor a young woman. (But I buy gifts for people who are.) Just a few doors up is Venus on the Half Shell, a vintage-clothing store more my speed (many a pearl-snapped Western shirt has been found there).
Along Patrick Street, there are a number of antique and furniture stores, including Emporium Antiques, a 55,000-square-foot 1918 warehouse that hosts 130 dealers. For one-of-a-kind gifts and crafts, head to Ec’clectibles, a store that lives up to its name.
Tom England’s toy store, Dancing Bear, which specializes in educational and developmental toys and games— none of which are battery operated— occupies the same space on North Market Street where, in the 1960s, my mother’s parents owned The Village Restaurant, a down-home diner and soda fountain.
“Business in downtown is terrific year-round for a toy store, but the holidays are especially fun,” says England. “When you go to a big box store, everybody is kind of tense. You come down here, it doesn’t matter how crowded it is, people are having fun, they’re happy. They’re more relaxed.”
If you’re going to shop, you’ve got to eat. Phil Bowers’ three restaurants— Brewer’s Alley, a brew pub and restaurant; Isabella’s Taverna and Tapas Bar; and Acacia, a fusion bistro— offer a little bit of everything. I also recommend The Tasting Room and Firestone’s Bar and Restaurant. (During December, be sure to call ahead and make reservations.)
Frederick officially rings in the season with the Kris Kringle Procession, a winter parade now in its 23rd year that links the town to its German and English heritage. Old World characters like Pelsnickle, Kringle’s associate who prowls the countryside for naughty children, Jack Frost and the Snow Queen, along with Kris himself, march through the city streets on the first Friday of December (this year’s procession takes place Friday, Nov.30). The parade begins on East Street near Everedy Square and Shab Row, a three- block shopping and dining district once inhabited by a factory and 18th-century tenements. Each year my daughter, who just turned 8, and my father dine on brick-oven baked pizza at Danielle’s (formerly Tauraso’s), an Italian restaurant at Everedy Square, and then follow the procession as it winds down Patrick and Market, ending at Baker Park where the mayor lights the City Tree.
Other popular events include the Candlelight House Tour in which citizens open their homes in the historic district for self-guided tours (Dec. 1 and 2). The Downtown Frederick Partnership sponsors the First Saturday Gallery Walk (Dec. 1). Luminaries light the way along sidewalks. There is live entertainment and openings at any number of the city’s art galleries. Most shops stay open until 9 p.m., serving hot chocolate and cookies, and displaying gingerbread houses created for the city’s annual Scents and Sweets Competition.
And what holiday is complete without singing? The Festival of Lights (Dec.14) finds carolers gathered in front of City Hall. Each caroler holds a candle that is lit one by one as the flame is passed from neighbor to neighbor, until the entire courtyard is illuminated with light while bells from the “clustered spires” toll. To me, this event pretty much sums up the spirit of the season in Frederick.
This holiday, like most people, I will probably eat and drink too much, rush from one family gathering to another and wrap gifts at the last minute. And I’ll walk along Patrick Street following Jack Frost’s footprints with my daughter and my father, who will grumble, as he does every year, “When did they take all the colored lights out of Christmas?” When pressed, however, he will admit that all those white lights in the trees are almost as pretty.
>>For more information and a complete listing of all the holiday events in Frederick, contact the Frederick City Office of Special Events at 301-600-2841, celebratefrederick.com, or contact The Tourism Council of Frederick County at 301-600-4047, http://www.fredericktourism.org. For a complete directory of shops and restaurants, visit the Downtown Frederick Partnership’s Web site at downtownfrederick.org, where you will also find information about the Downtown Frederick Gift Card, which can be used at more than 130 stores and restaurants.