Three rosy-cheeked angels, adorned with glistening ivory gowns and poinsettia-garland coronets atop blond hair, stand in a cloud of snow on the front porch of a 9th Street home in Opelika. Holding a cluster of red poinsettias and winter greens, the angels, with gold wings and pleasant smiles, portray a feeling of comfort and innocence. They represent a season of purity and help complete an annual display: the Victorian Front Porch Tour, an event that welcomes the holiday season in the North Opelika Historic District.
The porch tour originated 18 years ago when artist Jan Jones offered to display several of her life-sized Santa Claus figures on the front porches of her neighbors’ Victorian homes on 9th and 10th Streets in Opelika. Jones had previously worked as a display artist for malls across the Southeast, where she decorated seasonally with elegant paper mache figures. The community thoroughly enjoyed seeing the artist’s surplus of characters on display. After the inaugural Christmas exhibit, several other neighbors requested characters for their homes, and the porch tour evolved into an event the area began to love and expect. Over time, the Victorian Front Porch Tour has been recognized in national publications and was voted as a top attraction by the Southeast Tourism Society.
In 2006, Jones moved away from the area. The tour had grown to over 60 decorated homes and covered 10 city blocks. There was an outcry from the community who desperately wanted the event to continue. Downtown business owner, Jill Bonneau, with the support of the City of Opelika, stepped up to the plate and took on the responsibility of tour coordinator. A local entrepreneur donated space to house hundreds of characters and props, and volunteers from varying civic groups helped in setting up the displays and organizing the warehouse.
The city, in conjunction with the local neighborhood association, now takes the lead in maintaining the displays and staging the event each year. Work begins in March to refresh and repair the Victorian characters that decorate the historic districts’ turn of the century homes in December. Additions have been added to the tour displays through the years. But 2010 will be the first year for three new life-sized figures to be added to the collection. Opelika artist and current tour coordinator, DiAnn Cullinan, works with seamstresses Lynne Carter and Jane Suhling to create three wise men for the tour. “For several years, there have been requests for the wise men,” says Cullinan, who is a trained, mixed media artist, “I was out antique shopping and saw a display of gorgeous head dresses that reminded me of what the wise men should wear. I selected three and brought them back to the committee for their opinions. They all thought they were grand, and we began working on creating these three men.”
The Santa Clauses and supporting cast are created with clay faces and paper mache painted and clothed with elegant linens, handmade for each individual figure. The Santas are all unique and full of personality; from the Old World, antique Santa to the European Santa with a wassail bowl and the woodsy Santa with rope for a beard. Supporting characters and displays are oftentimes named by the volunteers, including Mickey and Minnie (a young boy and a girl), Amazing Grace (a character who made her way back to the tour after being lost), or Mother Earth (a lady with tree branches growing from her head).
“Each homeowner relates to his display,” explains Cullinan. “Ms. Suhling is quite the reader, and her porch has a Santa that has books and reading glasses, for example.”
Over 10,000 people travel from across the Southeast to view these tour displays each year. Bus loads of visitors drive through the porch tour beginning on Wednesday. On Saturday evening, the streets open for a walking tour. Neighbors dress in Victorian character and greet the guests. Performers including bell ringers, carolers, bands and storytellers are dispersed throughout the tour.
On 9th Street, at the former home of the tour creator, the three little Angels will sit peacefully as people view the brightened Opelika neighborhood. The angels bring a warm and fuzzy feeling to the heart of Cullinan while imagining the beautiful scenes that will soon be displayed throughout North Opelika’s Historic District.
Lighted Driving Tour
December 8-10 & 12th
5 pm to 10 pm
Lighted Walking Tour
6 pm to 9 pm
The tour begins at North 8th Street on 2nd Avenue.