The first Saturday in December. For many, it’s simply another ordinary day, following the familiar festivities of Thanksgiving and ushering in a month of holiday events and decorating. However, for a small town in rural Loudoun County, this is one date in particular that its modest population of 828 is undoubtedly familiar with; Christmas in Middleburg.
In many ways, the event seems to embody the very spirit of the town and carries with it a tradition dating back nearly forty years. While the sprawling expanses of stone-fenced horse farms and agricultural properties scattered about the many rural roads in and around Middleburg may be well-known as some of the most picturesque landscapes on the East Coast, few may realize the heritage behind the long-standing holiday traditions for which the town is perhaps best known.
While Loudoun in its entirety has long been considered the “Horse Capital” of the country, none of its towns have come to embrace the horse and its accompanying traditions quite like Middleburg. Located on the southern-fringes of the county, this small historic district encompasses a well-storied heritage; one which is inextricably linked with the horse. Dating back to the early 1900’s, fox hunting became synonymous with the area, earning it the distinction of “The Nation’s Horse and Hunt Capital.”
Middleburg’s association with their equine counterparts is perhaps no more evident at any point in the year than during the town’s famous Christmas in Middleburg celebrations. With attendance steadily increasing for the annual celebration, the event now boasts an estimated attendance of 25,000 individuals from surrounding counties to Washington DC and beyond. Though many will participate in the nearly-two-hour long parade later in the afternoon, the prestigious Middleburg Hunt and Hound Review has the distinction of kicking-off the area’s holiday festivities. The review provides a one-of-a-kind opportunity to view the century-old Middleburg Hunt as they proceed down the town’s main stretch, hounds leading the way, followed by the hunt masters, staff, and field.
For those lucky enough to notice, the review is prefaced by a unique opportunity for visitors of all ages to meet the horses and hounds face-to-face, as the group gathers behind the iconic Red Fox Inn (considered by many to be the oldest continuing-service Inn in the country; continuously operating for nearly 290 years.) The gathering provides an opportunity for the hunt to gather and enjoy refreshments and hors d’oeuvres prior to their pass down the parade route. After an exciting jaunt past the enthusiastic spectators, the hunt returns to the famed-Salamander Resort a short ways down the street, allowing the riders to change before setting off on perhaps the most exciting and prestigious hunt meets of the season.
The conclusion of the Hunt and Hound Review allows the vast crowd’s attention to focus on the many delightful shops, cafes, and restaurants scattered along the main stretch of downtown Middleburg. Once such location is the centrally-located Side Saddle Cafe. Tucked away from the main street, it provides a quiet place for families to enjoy lunch while the countdown to the main parade draws near. Exuding the endearing qualities of life in this small town, the quaint cafe is nestled in the basement of the old Hidden Horse Tavern, which dates to the mid-19th century. With soft lighting, exposed wooden ceiling joists and masonry abound, the cozy atmosphere seems a perfect match for a day on which to kick off the area’s Holiday celebrations.
Family owned and operated, the hospitality certainly mirrors the quality of the food and atmosphere. However, this is one of the rare times diners won’t see the cafe’s manager, Bernadette Boland serving customers and assisting the staff. As the cafe’s name implies, the local resident was one of the few side-saddle riders participating in the parade’s early-morning Hunt and Hound Review, as well as the proceeding hunt through the seemingly-limitless horse farms and easement lands of southwestern Loudoun County.
As the start time for the afternoon’s parade draws near, visitors numbering in the tens of thousands begin lining the streets yet again. Jockeying for the best spot along the route, additional crowds slowly begin streaming out of the many retail shops and restaurants to join the other spectators, now three-to-four people deep along the quarter-mile stretch of road. As the two-o-clock mark nears, the Middleburg Police Department Chief’s cruiser becomes visible over the hill, and everyone’s gaze turns west-bound. The main Christmas in Middleburg Parade has finally begun!
The nearly-two-hour-long parade boasts a vast array of exciting participants, ranging from elaborate floats pulled by vintage tractors, to political figures and town council members. Various vintage car clubs were seen throughout the lineup, covering nearly every vehicle type from a ’60s era amphibious Amphicar, to late-model Aston Martins and everything in-between. Longtime-favorite crowd-pleasers included the Corgi Corps, consisting of more than twenty Corgis dressed a variety of holiday-themed canine attire, as well as the Washington Redskins Alumni Cheerleaders, led by burgundy and gold Jeep Wranglers.
The ever-exciting Spanish Riding Horses awed the crowd with moves more typical of a Lipizzaner show than a small-town Christmas parade. As numerous marching bands maintained the events’ consistent pace, a number of animal rescue groups joined the procession, including the local Middleburg Humane Foundation. Sporting a number of animals currently up for adoption, the non-profit group has been providing priceless services to animals in the area for nearly thirty years. Rounding out the tail-end of the parade was an iconic four-horse carriage, carrying the one-and-only Santa Clause. After a slow and cheerful pass along the vast expanse of enthusiastic crowds, the carriage looped around and made a surprise trip back through the crowded streets – catching many off guard as kids shook their parents lose, running back to the street barriers for one final glimpse.
As Santa’s carriage became ever-smaller on the horizon, the event drew to a close. Though the parade may have finished, the holiday spirit of this historic town had only just been ignited. For many, the weekend was rounded-out with numerous parties and social events, many of which only began upon the return of the hunt which had started it all nearly six hours earlier, as huntsmen and women tacked up on this crisp Saturday morning, the first Saturday in December.