After Rosa Hernandez moved from Mexico to the Sound Country community of Columbia, she became homesick for the Hispanic holiday homage to Mary and Joseph.

Dubbed “La Posada” — which means lodging or shelter in Spanish — the colorful re-enactment of the Holy Family’s quest for lodging before the birth of baby Jesus has been carried out in Mexico for centuries. Both children and adults participate in a luminary procession to designated homes, where they often sing carols. A child, dressed as Mary and perched on a live burro, often leads the procession.

To carry on this old Hispanic tradition, Hernandez initiated a one night “La Posada” in 2001 as part of River Town Christmas on the Scuppernong in historic Columbia in Tyrrell County.

“This celebration is very important to me and my family because it tells us about the birth of Jesus Christ,” says Hernandez. “We wanted to share this celebration with everybody. It is different from the celebration in Mexico where they have pilgrimages nine days before Christmas to signify the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy.”

The colorful tradition helps other residents in the growing Hispanic population in Tyrrell County feel more connected to the community.

“Hispanics are settling everywhere, including Tyrrell County,” says Dorothy Redford, site manager of Somerset Place in nearby Washington County. “New immigrants are embraced and accepted here. Columbia is very open to newcomers for a small southern town.”


At this year’s River Town Christmas, La Posada will be held on Saturday, Dec. 6. A group of children dressed as the Holy Family and followed by dozens of other participants will carry candles to several businesses and homes in downtown Columbia.

In keeping with the Spanish tradition, the group will knock on each door and sing “We are Mary and Joseph Looking for Shelter.”

“At first, the family inside refuses to let them in,” says Hernandez, a Tyrrell County teacher. “Then the travelers sing again and move on to another place.”

Their journey culminates at the downtown fire station where they celebrate with Mexican food and drinks, including enchiladas, atole — a sweet drink made from cornmeal — and other dishes. Then the children knock down the pinata filled with goodies.

The 5th Annual River Town Christmas on the Scuppernong, which runs Dec. 4-6, also includes a flotilla — a lighted boat parade on the Scuppernong River.

“We usually have between eight and 12 boats lighted and decorated with everything from snowmen to birds and a Christmas tree,” says Luittard Dietrich, one of the owners of the International Yachting Center in Columbia.

The event also includes a Christmas bazaar and open house at the Partnership for the Sound’s Columbia Theatre.

“This is a local-oriented festival with local vendors,” says Tessi Hollis, chairperson of the 2002 River Town Christmas. “We want to give natives a reason to come home.”

River Town Christmas is more than a celebration. Across North Carolina, festivals help boost local economies.


A new study from the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) and Smithsonian Magazine lists North Carolina as one of the top 10 destinations for cultural, arts, historic and heritage activities.

The study also found that heritage and cultural travelers spend more money as compared to the average U.S. trip — $623 vs. $457, excluding cost of transportation — making historic/cultural travel a lucrative market.

“North Carolina is rich with cultural and heritage assets that continue to lure millions of visitors to our state,” says Lynn Minges, executive director of the N.C. Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development. “We have focused on development of this growing market segment, and those efforts have paid off.”

The study also noted that 30 percent of historic/cultural travelers choose a destination based on a specific historic or cultural event or activity. These travelers are more likely to stay seven nights or longer, fly or rent cars and book hotel rooms. In fact, four in 10 added extra time to their trip specifically because of a historical/cultural activity.

North Carolina’s heritage tourism program began in 1996 and was designed to help preserve, protect and promote the state’s cultural and heritage assets.

In recent North Carolina Sea Grant birding surveys conducted in North Carolina, researchers found that many of North Carolina’s visitors also were interested in historical and cultural attractions, according to Sea Grant Extension Director Jack Thigpen.

“This may create marketing opportunities for nature-based businesses and people involved with cultural places and events,” Thigpen adds. “For example, cross-advertising in birding magazines and history publications, partnering with local complimentary businesses may have pay-offs for everyone.”


In North Carolina, many cultural travelers stop at Somerset Place in Washington County to kindle the holiday spirit during an annual open house.

In spite of damage from Hurricane Isabel, the event is being held this year on Dec. 7 from 1 to 4 p.m.

At Somerset Place — once a thriving antebellum plantation with more than 100,000 acres — visitors can glimpse holiday traditions as they were before the Civil War.

“This is our 15th year to celebrate a traditional Christmas at Somerset,” says Redford. “We create the past by decorating buildings with natural materials — from fruit to magnolia leaves.”

The present site includes 31 of the original lakeside acres and seven original 19th century buildings, including the kitchen, slave house and laundry. A large labor force built these buildings. Over the plantation’s life from 1785 to 1865, there were 50 white employees, two free black employees and more than 850 enslaved people.

Since much of the plantation life centered around the kitchen, visitors can see how a 19th century kitchen operated and sample homemade cornbread and black-eyed peas cooked over an open fire.

The 14-room antebellum mansion of planter Josiah Collins III — with its expansive porches, formal gardens and expensive furnishings — also will be open.

Community churches decorate each room in honor of a past or present member, held in high esteem. Also, people in nearby communities are invited to add arrangements that honor volunteers who helped during the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel.

During the Somerset open house, volunteers from the churches greet visitors, talk about the honorees and display Christmas decorations. Any honoree still living also greets visitors. As a permanent tribute, a biographical sketch is written about the honoree. The write-ups are published each year as Reflections: A Somerset Christmas. Since 1990, 124 people have been honored.

“Last year, we honored volunteer firemen and health care professionals,” says Redford. “This year, the churches can choose anyone for the program. Typically, these individuals never sought public recognition but lived honorable lives and had a lasting and positive impact on others. We also will be celebrating random acts of kindness in a crisis. I am inspired by stories of people extending themselves in a wonderful way.”

For example, after Hurricane Isabel, some people came from Greenville with a truck and cooker and gave out string beans and potatoes to anybody who passed the house, according to Redford.

The tradition of honoring community members was started to get the whole community involved in Somerset Place.

After the first homecoming of slave descendants in 1986, some whites felt alienated, says Redford, who is a seventh-generation descendant of the first slaves to toil the plantation.

“This open house helps to build a cohesive community,” she says. “All the church choirs come together and sing  together. It is truly an ecumenical event.”

To find out more about River Town Christmas in Columbia, call 252-796-0723 or e-mail, For details on the Somerset Open House, call 252-797-4560 or visit the Web: and click on historic sites.

This article was published in the Holiday 2003 issue of Coastwatch.

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