SUGAR HILL — When the custom of giving Christmas gifts started at the end of the 19th century, the residents of this small community in the western White Mountains made sure that each child got what was then among the most exotic, luxurious gift possible: an orange.
In 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic, that tradition will carry on Thursday — albeit in front of the Sugar Hill Meetinghouse, rather than inside it — for the 128th consecutive year as a socially-distanced Santa and his elves give age-appropriate gifts – and an orange – to every child from newborn through sixth grade.
Begun in 1892, when the farming economy was collapsing in northern New England, the Town Christmas Party, according to a history of the event, predates the incorporation of the Town of Sugar Hill – which was then a part of Lisbon — by 70 years.
Held in the youngest town in the state, the Town Christmas Party is believed to be among the oldest and only community Christmas celebrations of its kind in New Hampshire.
The Willing Workers Society of Sugar Hill, which marked its centennial in 2020, has sponsored the Town Christmas Party since the late 1920s. The Willing Workers Society identifies itself as a “nonprofit, nonsectarian organization whose purpose is to foster a spirit of helpfulness throughout the community.”
“From the beginning,” according to “A Brief History” of The Willing Workers Society of Sugar Hill, “the Workers presented every new bride in the community a beautiful quilt. They knitted sweaters and made surgical dressings for the Red Cross. They catered dinners. They aided victims of fires. They visited the sick. They comforted the bereaved,” and, of course, they sponsored the Town Christmas Party.
“It’s organized chaos,” explained Rose Ellms, a member of the Society and the 18-year coordinator of the Town Christmas Party, who was determined that the party not be canceled “on my watch.”
Rather than be canceled, the party has moved outdoors and gone mobile, with attendees pulling up in their vehicles to the front of the Meeting House, where Santa and his elves are waiting.
Betsy Fraser, who is president of the Society, said the Town Christmas Party represents another success for the Society despite the pandemic.
By being creative and resilient, the Society in 2020 has raised and donated more money into the community than ever, she said.
Kathie Côté, who with her husband, Dennis, co-owns the much-awarded Polly’s Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill, said the Town Christmas Party is a family affair.
Her late mom, Nancy, for many years conducted the choir that annually performs at the party and which Kathie has sung in since the age of 14. Meanwhile, Dennis has emceed the party in each of the 39 years that he and Kathie have been married.
As a boy, Côté’s grandfather, Homer Aldrich, would come to the Town Christmas Party, she said.
“And he used to tell the story of how one year he got an orange AND a pair of mittens, Côté recalled. “He loved those mittens,” she said, “and I remember thinking how special it is” that Sugar Hill has a town Christmas party.