Christmas is here early for Lebanon with the Mistletoe Merchants holiday market, a three-day event at the Farm Bureau Exposition Center that began Friday.

Families looking to get a head start on their shopping this season can visit more than 100 vendors from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10 for one day or $18 for a weekend pass.

“The event is a mix of fall fashion, children’s items, gourmet food, home décor and more,” event promoter Kristi Rowan said. “We’ve got some amazing home décor vendors from Arkansas and Georgia, and they’re some of the best in the business.”

Mistletoe Merchants was originally held at the Nashville Fairgrounds and is entering its third year in Lebanon. Rowan said last year’s event saw roughly 5,000 shoppers, and online ticket sales are expected to put this year’s total closer to 7,500.

“Usually the early morning is the biggest time, because everyone wants to get there early and be the first to see the items,” she said. “In the afternoon around 2 or 3 p.m. it starts slowing down a bit, and the last three hours of the day are good for people who want to come in a less busy environment.”

Whatever the time of day, the expo center has safety measures in place to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among shoppers.

“We have hand sanitizing stations throughout the building, and masks and social distancing are required,” Farm Bureau Exposition Center Marketing Director Gayle Hibbert said. “The good thing about a shopping event is that the booths themselves create social distancing. We’re also limiting the number of people who can use the bathrooms at one time, routinely wiping down surfaces and eliminating some shared surfaces like benches that we don’t need for the event.”

Hibbert also expects the Mistletoe Merchants to help local business owners over the weekend as shoppers from across the state travel in. Kathy Neely and Nancy McDonald of Murfreesboro said they usually visit four craft fairs a year and appreciated the opportunity to start traveling again.

“We came last year, and it’s probably one of the best craft fairs we’ve been to,” Neely said. “We got a little bit of everything. This is so different from what all the other ones are doing, and you can find stuff you won’t see anywhere else.”

One of the more popular booths on opening day was Rumtastic Gourmet Rum Cakes, from Duluth, Georgia. The vendor offers nine flavors, including an “X-rated” recipe with a double dosage of rum.

“This is our first year here,” employee Yolanda Grimes said. “We do events all the time, but after the pandemic hit we had to shut down for a while. It’s great to open back up, and people are loving it. I think people are ready to get back out and about.”

Also attending for the first time was Branded Collective, a Nashville-based vendor offering custom jewelry made by survivors of human trafficking. The store employs those artists with the goal of creating a safe and fulfilling work environment in partnership with End Slavery Tennessee.

“Most of them have trouble getting jobs that would be fitting for them or pay appropriate rates because they have a history with drugs or other criminal charges,” Operations Manager Laurel Fisher said. “They include a number and their initials on each piece they make, and when a person purchases one they can enter that number on our website to send a message of hope to the survivor who made it.”

Fisher said she learned about Mistletoe Merchants last year after the booths were already filled and made sure to participate this time around.

“So far I’m really happy with the number of shoppers,” she said. “You never know right now how many people will come to a large event, and I’ve been able to talk to a lot of great shoppers.”

Kristi Cross and Laura McMullen also appreciated the chance to meet new people over the weekend. The two traveled more than 700 miles from the Dallas, Texas area and operate a pop-up shop that combines their businesses: Rustic Ranch Décor and Kris Cross Jewelry.

“This is our first time to come to this show,” McMullen, who owns Rustic Ranch Décor, said. “So far I would say there’s been a lot of traffic. It’s probably the most I’ve seen anywhere this year, and we’ve done shows in Texas and Oklahoma.”

McMullen’s shop offers home décor, clothing and seasonal items, while her business partner specializes in custom jewelry.

“We follow some current trends, and some are just random pieces,” Cross said. “When I first started 12 years ago, I was actually tearing up old jewelry to make leather wrap belts, which I don’t make anymore. Things are starting off just now, but I think it’s going to be great. We do a live sale every Wednesday, and we pick up new people everywhere we go.”

The market is also shaping up to be a success for the Farm Bureau Exposition Center and the county as a whole.

“I think the economic impact is going to be huge because people have been limited for quite some time on what they can do,” Hibbert said. “Some of the recent events we’ve had here more than doubled our expectations, and this is probably the biggest one we’ve had come along since February People can prepare for Christmas, do shopping for their families and just come out and do something fun.”

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