This time of year, you can find dozens of events that feature chestnuts roasting on open fires and Yuletide carols being sung by choirs, but there’s only one holiday celebration that features Ohio’s grandest musical Christmas tree.
Soaring 200 feet into the sky, the Carillon Tree of Light consists of 20,000 bright-white bulbs that drape over Deeds Carillon, a landmark bell tower at Carillon Historical Park in Dayton. “Deeds Carillon is a 151-foot-tall musical instrument with 57 bells,” says Alex Heckman, vice president of museum operations for the park. “Since the Tree of Light peaks above the top of the tower, it’s the largest musical Christmas tree in the state.”
Located on 65 acres bordering the Great Miami River, Carillon Historical Park is an open-air museum founded in the 1940s by industrialist Edward Deeds and his wife, Edith. Because his passion was history and hers was music, they made Deeds Carillon the focal point of a collection of buildings and artifacts that highlight both Dayton’s heritage and its many contributions to industry and transportation. The architectural firm Reinhard & Hofmeister, whose projects include New York’s Rockefeller Center, designed the Art Deco-style limestone carillon, and the Olmsted Brothers, founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects and instrumental in the creation of the National Park Service, laid out Carillon Park’s landscape.
Deeds Carillon’s first concert was on Christmas Eve 1941. Just over two weeks earlier, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor had thrust the nation into World War II, and Daytonians gathered at the carillon to take comfort in the sound of bells ringing out a program of carols that began with “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Even the carillon’s bronze doors lent poignancy to that inaugural performance. At Mrs. Deeds’ direction, they were inscribed with lines from “Christmas Bells,” a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem that features the hopeful refrain “peace on Earth, goodwill to men.”
“A Carillon Christmas” lasts from Thanksgiving week until December 30, and Deeds Carillon serves as the event’s time-honored centerpiece. It not only turns into a spectacular Tree of Light every evening, but also provides the soundtrack for the event, delighting visitors with the tintinnabulations of automated Christmas songs as well as live concerts. “On certain dates,” says Heckman, “our carillonneur plays holiday music on a keyboard that sits 80 feet above the ground.” Not surprisingly, the musical selections include “Jingle Bells” and “Silver Bells.”
With the entire park decked out for the holidays, visitors often arrive early enough in the day to enjoy the festive campus and explore step-back-in-time buildings and exhibits that cover everything from a Shaker community and canals to world-changing Dayton inventions such as the cash register, the automobile self-starter, and the airplane. Dayton bicycle mechanics Orville and Wilbur Wright used their knowledge of machinery to invent the airplane, and Carillon Park displays its greatest treasure — the 1905 Wright Flyer III — inside its Wright Brothers National Museum complex. The Flyer III was the world’s first practical airplane, and, notes Heckman, “It’s the only airplane designated a National Historic Landmark.”
To see the park at its merry-and-bright best, take a ride on the Carillon Park Railroad, a narrow-gauge train whose locomotive mimics the steam engine that pulled Dayton’s first passenger train in 1851. “The railroad is a wonderful experience for families,” says Heckman. “It makes a mile-long loop around the park, and when the Christmas lights are twinkling, everything looks special.” Another fun ride awaits inside the park’s Heritage Center, where the Carousel of Dayton Innovation lets riders go for a spin on a cash register, a pop-top soda can, and other novel seats.
Although the Heritage Center’s large exhibit of locally manufactured antique toys provides the perfect setting for visits with Santa, little ones also can write letters to the jolly old elf inside the Newcom Tavern, a 1796 log structure that was once a post office and an inn. In addition, the park’s one-room schoolhouse hosts nightly puppet shows based on The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter, which was published in 1903, shortly before the Wright Brothers achieved their first flight at Kitty Hawk.
While the aroma of hearth-baked gingerbread cookies entices everyone to the Morris & Hetzel Bakery’s circa 1815 stone cottage, it’s the smell of ink and the clatter of a linotype machine that fascinates visitors at Gem City Letterpress. Carillon Park is the nation’s only museum with a fully operational 1930s printing shop, and you can watch workers demonstrate the equipment they use to print recipes for the bakery’s cookies; the tavern’s letters to Santa; and charming Christmas cards whose greetings range from “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” verses to the Yuletide message that the Wright Brothers and their sister Katharine sent in 1911.
The very mention of Christmas, the Wrights reflected, “sets our hearts aglow” and “prompts the feeling of goodwill within us.” Those sentiments, like the bells of Deeds Carillon, still ring true.
Carillon Historical Park, 1000 Carillon Blvd, Dayton, OH 45409. Closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Christmas cards and other Gem City Letterpress products are available for purchase at the Carillon Historical Park Museum Store. For hours, admission fees, and holiday activities, call 937-293-2841 or visit www.daytonhistory.org.