Greetings from Small-Town America: Leavenworth, Washington

This Washington mountain town, modeled after a Bavarian village and home of the Nutcracker Museum, attracts millions of visitors—at Christmas and all year round.

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Posted in , Nov 25, 2021

Christmas lights in Leavenworth, Washington; credit: Inge Johnsson/Alamy

It doesn’t matter how many times I visit: Anticipation always builds as I descend Stevens Pass. Racing beside my car, Icicle Creek seems just as eager for its first sight of Leavenworth, Washington. I’m among some 2.5 million visitors drawn here each year. It wasn’t always that way.

In the 1960s, Leavenworth was just another fading timber town in the Cascades. Determined to save their community, residents reinvent­ed it as a Bavarian village, as hardy and beautiful as the gentian (enzian in German), a wildflower of the Alps.

One summer day, I pull up to Leavenworth’s oldest year-round lodging: the Enzian Inn. Robin John and her husband, Chris, are general managers of the hotel, which was built by her family in the early 1980s. “The banks said no one would ever come to Leavenworth in the winter,” Robin recalls. “We were told Leaven­worth was not a destination city.”

Undeterred, Robin and her family built in phases, visiting Bavaria to ensure authenticity, right down to the alpenhorn blown at every breakfast. The granddaughter of a pastor, Robin considers the hotel a ministry; guests have told her of a “heavenly presence” there. The inn is booked a year ahead for the holidays, when the town is transformed.

Work begins in early October. By Thanksgiving, downtown Leaven­worth is a winter wonderland, with more than a half million lights—12 miles’ worth! Tourists flock to the snow-covered village, searching for Santa, a nearby reindeer farm and the Nutcracker Museum.

There, some 7,000 nutcrackers are on display; the star is Karl, a six-foot nutcracker carved from a single piece of linden wood by Karl Rappl of Oberammer­gau, Germany. Now in her nineties, museum founder Arlene Wagner still comes to work in a Bavarian dirndl.

David Severance caught the spirit when he moved here after 30 years as a Seattle police officer. His white beard prompted an invitation to play Santa for the annual festivities. David dove deep for the role, researching the history and lore of the holiday figure.

European versions—such as Saint Nicholas and Weihnachts­mann—differ from the American Santa, he says. “It’s about having a bountiful celebration with family, not about receiving gifts.”

David mingled with tourists, posed for photos and handed out tanger­ines to “good boys and girls.” “I have thousands of memories,” he says, going back to his very first day as Father Christmas, when a little girl hugged him and said, “I love you.”

It may be 80 degrees when David and I talk, but the spirit of Christmas, especially here in Leavenworth, is for every season.

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