Arts & Culture

Have a Holly Dolly Christmas!

A newbie gets the spirit of the season at Dolly Parton’s theme park

Photo: Helen Ellis

Author Helen Ellis (middle) with friends Victoria Curran and Laura Rowan at Dollywood.

I thought I knew how to do Christmas (I just bought a third fake tree for our New York City apartment), but then I went to Dollywood. And Dollywood knows Christmas. 

There are six million Christmas lights plugged in at the park, and that’s why me and my two childhood friends are here. We want to kick-start our holiday spirit. We want pageantry. To us fifty-two-year-old Southern ladies, pageantry means: Light your porch up like Liberace. It’s not hoarding if it all fits on the tree. And if you’ve got enough pep in your step, every day is a parade. Dollywood does not disappoint. If Dollywood was a Miss America contestant, her talent would be juggling glow-in-the-dark yard fawns while singing, “I’ll be home with bells on!” 

As soon as we walk through the front gates, we’re back in middle school. 

We are giddy. 

photo: Laura Rowan

There’s more contemporary Christmas music piped over speakers than a Lifetime holiday movie marathon. Park-goers bounce like marshmallows on hot cocoa and are decked out in their holiday funniest: Santa hats, elf hats, elf ears, elf stockings, holiday bulb necklaces, and reindeer antler antennae. Some park employees wear prairie dresses patterned with wreaths, toy soldiers, and candy canes. A woman working the register at Dolly’s Closet sports frosted fuchsia nail polish and Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds, which the three of us are here for because she is giving us a blast from our eighties past and she herself must be seventy years old. 

There are a noticeable number of delightful septuagenarian-and-overs working in the park, enjoying their third chapters, and giving off let us spoil you rotten Meemaw and Poppop vibes. Move over sullen teenagers, Dollywood is a winter wonderland of Walmart greeters.

Above the Dreamsong Theater marquee, a gigantic poster of Dolly (and her two-storied cleavage) smiles down at us like a kitschy cult leader. We can’t help but worship her. She’s half Mrs. Claus, half country legend. 

photo: Laura Rowan

Her tour bus is parked right there out in the open for you to climb onto, and we do, and I take a picture of her pink fuzzy slippers that look like Eudora Welty’s pink fuzzy slippers. Now that I’ve taken pictures of both, I feel complete. 

There are rollercoasters. A lot of them. Each more monstrous than the next. One plummets down a mountain like a string of NASCARs. One has seats like high chairs from hell that your legs dangle off of as you loop upside down. We ride the one that shoots fire and goes backward at the end. When I can’t scream anymore, I start cooing like a pigeon. None of us puke, and we’re proud.

photo: Laura Rowan

We shop. 

I buy a “Holly Dolly” sweatshirt. I buy a trucker hat that screams, “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Joleene.” I buy stickers that say “Guts, Grits, and Lipstick” and “Y’all need Jesus.” We dye-dip candles. We blow into tubes like breathalyzers to make blown-glass ornaments. 

The “exit through the emporium” souvenir shop sells T-shirts that read, I’m just here for the cinnamon bread. All we’ve heard from anyone—as if we’re first timers in Amsterdam and being told to sample the space cake—is: “You have to try the cinnamon bread.” 

Well, they’re right. The bread comes in a hot aluminum loaf pan, slipped inside a brown paper sack, with a side of icing for dipping. We tear off chunks that are so gooey they almost melt in our hands before they get to our mouths. The flavor is so euphoric, it’s like we’re mainlining Little Debbie’s heroin.

My friend says, “Oh my gawd, it’s butter heaven.”

I say, “That airport cinnamon roll can kiss my ass!”

We get some looks.

This is Dollywood. People mind their manners. We have two-day passes and not once in all the hours we spend there is a door not held open for me.

photo: Laura Rowan
A glassblowing demonstration.

People say, “Merry Christmas” in lieu of thank you or you’re welcome.

People say, “Have a blessed day” and really seem to mean it.

Carolers sing “O Holy Night” on chapel steps. 

My friends and I eat meatloaf stackers next door to a nativity reenactment. 

Christmas at Dollywood doesn’t mean you have to get religion, but it’s there if you want it. Remember the pageantry. Jesus may be the reason for the season, but Dollywood is in the Smoky Mountains, where they still believe in Sasquatch.