Local News

Remembering Raleigh: 10 Christmas memories you'll only have if you grew up in Raleigh

Posted November 21, 2020 6:47 p.m. EST
Updated November 22, 2020 12:10 a.m. EST

Wolfpack roasts the Tar Heels at Happyland Christmas Lights

— Each city has its own holiday traditions that help craft the culture and spirit of the community that lives there.

For those of us who grew up in Raleigh, we know there are some traditions that are unique to celebrating the holidays here – like wondering about the origins of the little Christmas tree over the Beltline, or doing holiday shopping at The Secret Shop as a kid.

So here are some unique holiday memories – some you'll remember, and others you may have forgotten – that you can only have if you celebrated the holidays in Raleigh

Booger Mountain Christmas Trees

1. "I'm a booger!" Shopping for trees at Booger Mountain

Whether you worked in the tree lot or just shopped for your Christmas tree here, many locals recall the iconic, red "I'm a booger!" jackets worn by the staff at Booger Mountain.

Just down the road, a gigantic inflatable snowman overlooked Falls of the Neuse Road from a rival Christmas tree lot.

If you grew up prior to the 70s, you might be more likely to remember shopping for your Christmas tree at Devereux Meadow baseball stadium – then doing some holiday shopping at Belks in downtown.

Happyland Christmas Lights

2. The Cross Family Lights – or Happyland

Whether you remember the Cross Family Lights or Happyland depends on your generation. In the 1960s, the Cross lights near New Bern Avenue was one of the most memorable displays in Raleigh.

"Cars would line up for miles," said Lucille Alexander, who remembered taking her children to see the lights.

Sadly, the Cross display was packed away and nearly destroyed in the decades since. Then, a Christmas miracle occurred: The Moore family discovered the old decorations in an estate sale, and salvaged them.

In more recent years, the Moore family has had one of the most memorable displays. Called Happyland, it is a mixture of all-new decorations, intermingled with the historic statues used in the Cross display. Jan Moore restored the vintage statues, allowing a new generation of locals to see them in their full glory.

At 90 years old, Alexander recalled seeing the statues from the Cross display at Happyland. "They brought tears to my eyes," she said, showing them to her granddaughter for the first time.

The 'Tiny Christmas Tree' has been over the Raleigh Beltline since 1988.

3. The Little Christmas Tree over the Beltline

For decades, Raleigh residents have driven past the little Christmas tree hanging over the Beltline between Six Forks Road and Glenwood Avenue, wondering about the story behind it.

It turns out, it belongs to the Minikus family, who has been putting it up since the 1980s. The 'little' tree is over 6 feet tall and hangs over 40 feet in the air.

There are no photos of The Secret Shop. If you have one, please let WRAL know! We'd love to share it!

4. The Secret Shop at Belk in Crabtree Valley Mall

Locals who grew up in the 1970s or 80s might remember The Secret Shop. It was a magical place where children could buy gifts for their family and friends, and items were priced to be affordable for children.

"When I was a student at Peace College in 1972, I had the best job of my life! My Christmas job was to be an elf in “The Secret Shop” at Belk in Crabtree Valley," said Margaret Lynn.

She's not the only Raleighite to recall spending their holidays as a teenage elf at the mall.

She helped the children shop for their special gifts based on a list the parents provided.

"The joy was delightful – to see the children pick out a gift for someone they loved," she said.

Many locals who grew up during this time share this special memory of a Christmas wonderland made just for them.

Vintage photo of the Raleigh Christmas Parade, which began in 1939.

5. Raleigh Christmas Parade at night

Younger locals may not remember, but the Raleigh Christmas Parade used to be at night.

In those days, the twinkling lights shone even brighter, and many Raleighites said the magic was more palpable after dark.

Aside from just watching the parade, many Raleighites have extra-special memories of being in the parade itself – marching in a school band, waving from a float, or being involved through a student organization.

"My strongest parade memories are of the Shriners in the tiny cars, Shaw’s amazing marching band, and of course Santa bringing up the rear with those loud fire trucks," said Karla Lineback.

2016 Holiday Express at Pullen Park

6. The Holiday Express at Pullen Park

The Holiday Express at Pullen Park is a newer memory in the history of Raleigh Christmas past.

There are two kinds of memories attached to the Holiday Express: Either you remember riding that fantastical train through a twinkling wonderland – or you remember the stress of trying to buy tickets before they sell out.

Either way, it's a tradition that has become part of the city's culture – and the experience is nothing short of childhood wonder.

Ira David Wood stars in 'A Christmas Carol'

7. Seeing Raleigh's own version of A Christmas Carol

Ira David Wood is Raleigh's very own Scrooge.

Ever since the show launched in 1974, it's been a tradition. It's just not Christmas until you cry while hearing a Christmas lullaby sung to Tiny Tim.

Scrooge watches from the dark – a moment, Wood explained, when he reflects on his own childhood and his lost father, and hears the words he wishes his father could say to him.

No other city has this version of the show.

The show changes a little each year, with new jokes and pop culture references – but, like Christmas, the important parts always remain the same.

Oakwood tour home

8. Driving through Historic Oakwood

There are incredible holiday displays across the Triangle. But, year after year, people return to drive through the rustic majesty of Historic Oakwood.

Each home is decorated to reflect the personality and style of the owner. Raleigh's famous velociraptor guards the neighborhood with flair. Wooden porches are decorated with snow, dazzling lights, red velvet ribbons. Some homes are classic; some are eclectic.

Some lucky locals get a ticket for the candlelight tour, to walk the neighborhood and see inside each of the homes involved. However, even if you've never done the tour, the majesty of Historic Oakwood at Christmas is a truly Raleigh experience that's something to behold.

20009 Tower lighting_01

9. WRAL Tower lighting

Nothing says 'Christmas!' like seeing the tallest 'Christmas tree' in Raleigh peering over Western Blvd. as you drive into downtown.

For more than 50 years, the community has gathered round to watch the TV news station kick off the holidays by lighting the 300 foot tower.

The tower at WRAL-TV Studios, 2619 Western Blvd., was first transformed into a lighted Christmas tree in 1960.

10. Honorable mentions: Snow bear, Thalheimer’s, North Ridge

On Christmas Eve, the North Ridge neighborhood was a hauntingly beautiful ride through streets of luminaries. There was nothing like listening to holiday music while looking at the lights in North Ridge.

One house, in particular, had a memorable tradition.

"All December, a large stuffed Santa Claus could be seen laying in the hammock. But on Christmas Eve, we'd always check – and Santa was gone!" said Libby Alexander. "As a Christmas Eve tradition, I loved taking my daughter to go see if Santa had taken off to start delivering toys yet."

Christmas window display at Taylor's in 1946 (Image courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina)

Other locals remember a giant white bear that walked around Thalheimer’s during the month of December.

"Visiting Snow Bear was a favorite holiday tradition for the kids," said Alexander.

Share your holiday memories

Hopefully, you remembered some of these treasured memories from Raleigh Christmas past – and if you didn't remember them, maybe the stories sparked a memory of your own!

Do you have a favorite holiday tradition that's unique to Raleigh? Email your story or photos to WRAL's Hidden Historian at hleah@wral.com.

Make a new holiday memory!

The holiday memories we make in 2020 will likely be different than ever before – but that doesn't mean we can't make magical Christmas moments!

WRAL and the City of Raleigh are presenting a light show like never before – a drive-through 1.3-mile route of light displays inside Dorothea Dix Park.

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