There are dozens of Norman Rockwell Christmas paintings, but only one comes alive every year.
The Town of Stockbridge, Mass., has reenacted Rockwell’s 8-foot-long painting, Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas, for the past 25 years as part of its annual holiday celebration.
For two hours on the first Sunday in December, the street is closed to traffic (this year it was scheduled on December 4). As in the painting, vintage automobiles line up across from the red brick Town Hall, Williams and Son Country Store and the 240-year-old Red Lion Inn.
Some of the people in the living Norman Rockwell Christmas painting once modeled for him. Recently retired police Chief Rick Wilcox posed as a Boy Scout for Rockwell when he was a kid. He didn’t make it into a painting, but his brother did. His grandfather posed for the clerk in Marriage License, but Rockwell went with someone else (Jason Braman, who owned the town’s department store).
Stockbridge’s Main Street hasn’t changed much since Rockwell moved there from Vermont in 1953. He was 59 years old, a well-established artist with the Four Freedoms, Rosie the Riveter and dozens of Boy Scout calendars and Saturday Evening Post covers behind him. He would live in Stockbridge for the next 25 years until he died in 1978 at 84.
One of the first things he did was to set up his studio above the meat market. He knocked out the window and replaced it with a $5,000 picture window that gave him a steady northern light. In Stockbridge Main Street, there’s a Christmas tree in that window.
The modern recreation isn’t exactly the same as the scene in the Norman Rockwell Christmas painting. He painted a nightscape, and the reenactment takes place in the afternoon. The Red Lion Inn was closed; in real life, it’s open in the winter now. The cars aren’t exactly the same – but then again, Rockwell painted cars from two different eras. He started the painting in 1956, but stopped work on it for a while. When he took it up again in the ‘60s, he put two small late-model cars next to the ‘50s models he’d already painted. He didn’t finish Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas until 1967.
That was the year WBAI-FM first played Arlo Guthrie’s recording of Alice’s Restaurant – which mentions the real restaurant Alice Brock ran in Stockbridge. The police officer in the song, Chief William J. Obanheim, had actually posed for Rockwell for his painting The Jury and a small pencil illustration for an insurance advertisement.
The painting now hangs in the Norman Rockwell Museum just a few miles outside of town.