Capturing the Spirit of the Season

By Barb Howell

Holiday cards, still in vogue for many, were once the only way to express season’s greetings to distant family and friends. Finding just the right card to convey a personal message could be as important as finding the perfect Christmas tree. For some, though, these beautifully illustrated cards have given way to a quick email, Instagram or Facebook post, or a family photo accented with a holiday design and printed for everyone on your mailing list in a matter of hours.

No one can argue with these conveniences, but the importance of traditional Christmas cards has been in the forefront for one Walworth County community — Elkhorn — for years. With its quaint downtown square, charming homes, festive holiday decorations and bucolic setting, Elkhorn has been the subject of artists for decades as they’ve created Christmas cards depicting its small-town charm. Printed by the thousands and mailed throughout the world, these cards have given Elkhorn the unique moniker of the “Christmas Card Town.”

The honor was bestowed on the community years ago and the story brings with it a bit of holiday nostalgia. According to Chris Clapper, executive director of the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce, a 1952 TV series called the “March of Time” featured the city of Elkhorn during the holiday season and put the town in the national spotlight.

As a result of the show, the community gained the attention of artist Cecile Johnson who was commissioned by Ford Motor Company in 1958 to create six watercolor paintings illustrating a small town to accompany an article in their monthly publication, the Ford Times. Later, a major publishing house used five of the six paintings for Christmas cards, distributing them nationwide and further bolstering Elkhorn’s image as an idyllic Midwestern town.

The tradition of capturing the city’s Christmas spirit resumed when the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce commissioned local artist Jan Castle-Reed to create a series of 15 oil paintings, the last one appearing as the 2011 Christmas card. In 2012, T. James Carson succeeded Castle-Reed with his watercolor paintings, which have graced Elkhorn’s Christmas cards ever since.

We’re pleased to present a sampling of artwork from Elkhorn’s famous Christmas card collection within this article. Whether it’s the beauty of a fresh snowfall, the hustle and bustle of holiday shoppers or the solitude of a church beneath a starry sky, all depict familiar sights and the simple joy that a special holiday greeting can deliver.

All designs within the Elkhorn Christmas card collection are available for purchase at the Elkhorn Chamber of Commerce, Matheson Memorial Library and the following Elkhorn businesses: Stillwater Coffee, Pharmacy Station, Friends on the Square and Frank’s Piggly Wiggly.

You can also view the original paintings used to create the cards. Cecile Johnson’s work is on display at Elkhorn’s City Hall. The remaining paintings can be viewed at Elkhorn’s Matheson Memorial Library.

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