Unofficial start to local holiday season kicks off this weekend
WILLMAR - For the Willmar area, the annual Holidaze event represents the unofficial start to the holiday season. Holidaze also gives downtown businesses a chance to bring people through their doors and show them the “heart of the city.”
This year, nearly 20 downtown establishments will be involved in the Holidaze events on Saturday, according to Beverly Dougherty, project coordinator at the Willmar Design Center, which coordinates the annual festival.
“(Holidaze) supports our mission to bring people downtown,” Dougherty said. “Every year at Holidaze, I have people say to me, ‘I didn’t know it was this nice here.’ It’s a great opportunity for people to see what a wonderful downtown area we have, and it brings them back here.”
In past years, up to 5,000 people have come to Holidaze events, whether it’s for the chili feed at Bethel Lutheran Church, the chance to see Santa Claus at the Barn Theatre, the tree lighting at Selvig Park or the lights parade that winds through downtown.
This year, there will be a few newer favorites at Holidaze as well. Live reindeer rides will be a feature at Holidaze again this year, and a New Ulm man will also be bringing back his collection of exotic animals, including an emu, camel, llama, fox and armadillo. This year, he will also have a singing dog with five puppies, Dougherty said.
After the parade, the Barn Theatre will be hosting a performance of “Portrait of the Artist as a Yo-Yo Man,” featuring Willmar native and comedian David Harris. There’s not always entertainment after the parade, and the Barn wanted to have an event that would help people “wrap up their day,” said Barn Theatre manager Cheri Buzzeo.
“It’s going to be a fun way for people to end their day and be entertained,” Buzzeo said. “It’s also a chance for us to promote a Willmar native who has achieved great things in the arts.”
The Barn has hosted Holidaze events since the festival’s beginning, Buzzeo said. Every year, she estimates that at least 500 people come to the Barn to see Santa Claus, decorate some cookies or take a tour of the theater.
“Some people who come have never been through the door before,” Buzzeo said. “It’s a great way to show them what we do, and we welcome them in to see what we have.”
Another organization that hopes to welcome people through its doors this year is the Willmar Area Multicultural Business Center. The WAM-BC will be having an open house in the afternoon, and five downtown ethnic businesses will be participating in Holidaze events as well.
These businesses will give people a chance to come inside, warm up and try several holiday delicacies of Latin countries, including authentic rice pudding, Mexican candy and Mexican fruit water, according to Robert Valdez, director of the WAM-BC. At the multicultural center, people can also try buñuelos, a cinnamon sugar tortilla dessert, or purchase tamales, a traditional Hispanic holiday food.
While traditions may be different for people from other cultures, it’s important for neighbors to come together at the holidays, Valdez said.
“Food, festivals and music bring unity among people,” he said. “That’s really what this holiday represents — that peace and harmony with one another. It doesn’t matter where we come from. It’s about community building and togetherness.”
Bethel Church also aims to bring people together over food at its annual chili feed before the parade. The chili feed is a freewill donation, and all of the money raised goes toward covering the event, said Michael Schaner, director of music ministries and a member of Bethel’s downtown ministry team. Even though it doesn’t make Bethel any money, the church considers it important to be a part of Holidaze.
“We are a downtown church, and we want to be open and serve others during Holidaze,” Schaner said. “It’s really great chili, and it’s a really fun time for people to gather together as a community. There aren’t many events that bring so many of us together all at once.”
This year, K-5 students from Willmar, New London-Spicer and Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City schools will be singing again in the Bethel sanctuary in the afternoon. The church will also have booths set up to sell olivewood from Israel and handmade baskets from Ghana. It’s a chance for people to do some early holiday shopping, and all of the proceeds go toward the Hope Pregnancy Center in Willmar, Schaner said.
With so many options throughout the day, people shouldn’t have a problem finding something fun to do, Dougherty said. But no matter how people choose to spend their time at Holidaze, it’s a chance for them to come together in the heart of downtown Willmar.
“People come to Holidaze because they love the community,” she said. “They can see their family and friends, visit over cider or coffee, bring their kids and just be together. Year after year, that part of Holidaze never changes.”
Holidaze events begin at 3 p.m. Saturday in downtown Willmar. For a full list of events, see the accompanying schedule.