Most times of the year, McAdenville registers as a hamlet off I-85, between Belmont and Gastonia.

That changes abruptly as the holidays approach: Its 650 or so residents go all-out to convert McAdenville into Christmas Town USA – an achievement that lights the nights and attracts thousands of visitors.

It’s a legacy from the 1950s, when the illumination began with nine trees. The event expanded over the years; now, more than 500,000 visitors (three-fourths from outside Gaston County) come to see the 375-plus trees strung with roughly 450,000 red, green or white lights. The event is so large that planning begins in summer.

The celebration – Dec. 2-26 this year – is an $11.8 million breadwinner, according to an economic impact survey. The money is not from admission: The route is free to drive. And that can take a while. Unless you’re a resident, you can access the route one of two ways: off N.C. 7 (Main Street) via Lowell, or from U.S. 74. Be aware that driving the route, a bit more than a half-mile, can be slow (10 or 15 mph or less).

A classic view is right in the middle of the route (and in the middle of town), where McAdenville’s pond shimmers with lights reflected from more than 30 trees.

You may want to walk the route instead. Park in the lot directly behind Main Street or the lot at the YMCA. Others park at the Food Lion lot in Cramerton, on the other side of U.S 74, and stroll in.

The two-part Christmas Town Festival starts with the tree- lighting ceremony at Legacy Park, downtown on Elm Street, Dec. 2 (a Monday). When the switch is flipped at 4:30 p.m., McAdenville’s light show officially begins. The other aspect of the festival is the Yule Log Parade and Ceremony on Dec. 13 (a Friday), which begins at 5:30 p.m. in front of the Pharr Yarn main offices. The parade steps off at 5:45 p.m.