Story By Hannah Lester
Photos By Robert Noles and Hannah Lester
Opelika is a Hallmark Christmas town. You can’t tell me otherwise.
Christmas decorations everywhere, events for the community, couples walking hand-in-hand through downtown and even — fake snow.
Picture your favorite Hallmark Christmas movie — the small-town feel where everyone knows each other and Christmas is always a big deal. To me, that’s Opelika.
The city has made the holidays a priority, and it pays off. Visitors come from miles around to see the Hallmark Christmas town.
“About three years ago we decided that we wanted to make Opelika a downtown Christmas destination,” said Leigh Krehling, Opelika’s community relations officer. “So, we got together a committee. Matt Battles, who works for Parks and Rec, and I kind of spearheaded everything, did a lot of research, determined what items we wanted to do all over town.”
The city started decorating this year the day after Halloween. If you walked through downtown on Nov. 1, there were wreaths on light poles and reindeer behind the courthouse.
“The first year we kind of did it on our own, as far as putting everything out and installing it and we quickly learned that we needed teams of people to help make it happen,” Krehling said. “We needed elves.”
Elves they found.
Maybe with Christmas-movie magic, those Hallmark towns just come together, but in Opelika, it requires a lot of work to create those picture-perfect moments.
“We invited different department heads and different groups like the [Opelika Chamber of Commerce] and [Opelika Main Street] and Keep Opelika Beautiful,” Krehling said.
Decorating takes a couple of weeks to fully have Opelika ready for the holidays, she said, and the city likes to have everything turned on by Black Friday.
“Our downtown is just a very unique downtown, we have a lot of historic buildings up and restored and are occupied,” said Ken Ward, director of Opelika Main Street. “We also have a lot of great public spaces. We have a lot that are perfect for displaying different decorations. And in addition to that, there’s been a lot of thought that’s gone into selecting the different decorations and getting the different types of lights and stuff downtown to make it look like that Hallmark-style feel.”
Merchants in downtown also try to outdo one another with Christmas decorations, Ward said.
“A lot of our downtown merchants really go out and decorate their store fronts and stores to the holiday season for main street,” Ward said. “Last year we did a Christmas decorating contest … So it’s just another way to make our community that much more charming during the holiday season.”
Of course, this year is different. COVID-19 might even infect Christmas movies. There are a few events that won’t take place in Auburn and Opelika, but Christmas decorating is still on track.
“Regardless of what happens with events, the city is going to look beautiful, so that people still feel the spirit,” Krehling said.
The decorations are not the only thing that give Opelika that Hallmark feel. There are several events that this publication highlights that bring the community together (albeit with social distancing this year.)
The south does not normally see a lot of snow, but Opelika likes to play weatherman and takes snow into its own hands.
This year the city will hold the “Snow Much Fun Christmas Extravaganza” on Dec. 5, fake snow and all (read more on page 66).
There doesn’t need to be a specific event for Opelika to ooze Christmas spirit, however.
“This year, a new thing that Main Street is going to work on organizing is, most likely it will be Thursday evening, there will be live music out by the Christmas tree in an effort to not only just create that hallmark Christmas environment like we said, but also to promote downtown shopping and dining during the holiday season,” Ward said.
Many people in this community lost family members, watched their business suffer or spent time in EAMC sick with COVID-19. And now people want a sense of normalcy at Christmas, said Ali Rauch, president and CEO of the Opelika Chamber of Commerce.
“Christmas in Opelika is just a very special time of year,” Rauch said. “We have an incredible community … They want to experience their favorite traditions. And so for us to come in and say we’re going to cancel Christmas because of this pandemic, we just felt like that was a disservice to our community.”
So Christmas is on, and there will be Christmas cheer. Sitting on Santa’s lap may be off the table, but his smiles will be full of warmth. Music will play, families will celebrate and Opelika’s Hallmark Christmas spirit will continue.