CARS and trucks roar through Holly Springs, barely slowing for the town's caution light on their way to some place they think is more important. Some drivers might not notice the shapes of red and green garlands hanging on wooden light poles. But those garlands tell both a Christmas story and the tale of a town busy trying to be born. Until recently, no one saw much reason to make an effort for Holly Springs, a cluster of faded buildings 15 miles south of Raleigh, the state capital. The town (pop., 700) hadn't had any Christmas decorations for as long as anyone could remember. ``The cost was prohibitive,'' says town manager Tom Taylor. One streetlight ornament alone had a catalog price of $300, and this was a town with needs far more pressing than a pricey Christmas display.
But this was also a town in the midst of a quiet, sustained drive for self-respect and self-rehabilitation. Residents will tell you about improved attitudes, a new willingness to help, and some scattered individual efforts to give the place a lift. Mostly, though, they'll tell you that the new Christmas trimmings in Holly Springs are an outward sign of a new town being built from the inside - in the minds and spirits of its residents, against the worst of odds.
The day after Thanksgiving, a dozen townsfolk began making their own decorations for Main Street. Kathy Pleasants, a town commissioner, made the first ornaments at home, following designs in the retail catalog. Ernestine Corbin, head of the town's Christmas Parade Committee, quickly approved the decoration and organized a work session.
One town official, who asked to remain anonymous, donated $100 for materials. Twisting and clipping electrical wire and weatherproof garland, volunteers made three-foot-high, multicolored stars, bells, candy canes, and snowmen. They made pine wreaths wrapped with velveteen ribbon to hang outside Town Hall. Meeting in the evenings, they stitched and painted a banner that reads ``Merry Christmas'' to hang across the street.
The decorations were finished in time for Holly Springs's annual Christmas parade, which included two floats, another first for the town. Enough money was left over from the decorations to buy hot chocolate and cookies for 100 townspeople who turned out for the town's first-ever Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
The Christmas festivities may not represent a major civic overhaul, but residents see them as more than tinsel and glitter.
``We're getting a community spirit going,'' says Mrs. Pleasants. ``People are really getting behind Holly Springs now.''
``Nobody had any faith in this town to want to come here or want to do anything for a long time,'' says Mayor Gerald Holleman, a native of Holly Springs. ``I think people are taking pride in the community now.''
This community pride has yielded some tangible fruits. Within the last two years, the town has installed a sewer system, received grants to rehabilitate housing, and attracted a laundromat and restaurant complex now under construction on the edge of town. The county sheriff's department has recently opened an office in Holly Springs, and Town Hall has moved from a little cinder-block building to a renovated historic house on Main Street.
Such small signs of civic flowering may be encouraging, but they can look paltry in light of the daunting problems facing Holly Springs.
Although it is in Wake County, one of the wealthiest areas in the state, Holly Springs has always been a poor cousin to neighboring communities. As recently as two years ago, 30 percent of the town's 200 homes had no indoor plumbing. High school students, the majority of them black, are bused to the affluent town of Cary. After they graduate, many of the town's young people leave and never come back.
But community leaders take hope in what they see as a new knitting together of community factions - one especially evident in the spontaneous coalition of folks in preparing and celebrating the Christmas festivities.
``We realize they're probably not the most fanciest decorations,'' says Pleasants, looking at the bright ornaments for a moment through the eyes of a visitor. ``But we did what our resources allowed us to do and our imaginations. To me it's like Christmas. It's something we made for the town.''
``I feel like ours are just as good'' as the decorations pictured in the catalog, says Mrs. Corbin.
The town commissioners were so pleased with the first efforts of the Christmas committee that they allocated $300 for additional materials. With that, volunteers created enough decorations for every other light pole on Main Street. Poles on the side streets are wrapped in white butcher paper and tied with red ribbons. Community leaders are hoping that butcher paper and handmade garlands may provide something they could never have realized with glitzy store-bought decorations.
Indeed, many who have been a part of the Christmas festivities are hoping that the community spirit can grow into a larger effort to help Holly Springs. ``There's a lot of good people in Holly Springs, but I don't think they've been totally motivated,'' notes Pleasants, pointing to tall grass and junk cars in yards on the outskirts of town.
Matthew Corbin, a lay minister, hopes the decorations will inspire young people. ``The problem we have mostly around here is, the ideas come up, but then the zeal burns out,'' he says. ``People say, `Well, now what?' and the kids say, `No one cares.' We're hoping, as far as the youth are concerned, they'll see that someone does care about the town.''
Corbin, who works a night shift at Austin Foods in Cary, admits that he could probably get a better job if he left Holly Springs. But ``if everybody who sees something wrong up and leaves, it doesn't help the problem,'' he says. ``Anybody can say, `Forget it.' It don't take no effort to quit.''
By improving the appearance of the town, many believe they can help attract new businesses and improve life for the residents. ``It's kind of like the domino effect,'' says Pleasants. ``Once it gets started it'll keep going if we just keep the interest up.''
And if these hopes and dreams seem like a lot to hang on the fragile wire and tinsel ornaments fluttering on wooden street poles, you have to start somewhere, Matthew Corbin observes.
``Little things mean a lot,'' he says. ``It might not seem like a lot to some people. But you never know what you get back for the good you do.''