Special celebration

Greens, reds and whites always have been prominent at the annual Festival of Lights parade. On Saturday evening, though, an unusual amount of silver tinsel and sashes were mixed in with the usual Christmas colors in more than 100 entries that paraded through downtown Columbus.

That’s because the Festival of Lights parade marked its 25th Silver Anniversary this year, according to event spokesperson Joyce Lucke.

As Heather Stout held up her 3-year-old son Adam, she looked at the shoulder-to-shoulder, eight-person-deep crowd near Eighth and Washington Streets.

“The parade always gets a little longer but brings in a lot more people every year,” Stout said as she tried maneuvering to give her young son a better view.

Thanks largely to holiday lighting displays mostly designed and built by high school vocational students, the festival began in 1987. It was modeled after the successful Winter of Lights Festival in Wheeling, West Virginia.

The elaborate displays, which were added to annually, became so popular across the region that a decision was made to launch the first Festival of Lights parade in 1990.

Favorable weather with above-freezing temperatures, such as the upper 30s that prevailed this year, can bring a crowd of up to 25,000, according to previous reports on the parade.

In 1996, an exceptional crowd turned out to see not only Boomer and Miss Indiana Shani Nielsen but hometown favorite Tony Stewart as the champion race car driver made an appearance as Grand Marshal.

While that honor was subsequently given to a popular educator for several years, the recognition was shifted this year from a teacher to a pupil.

Technically-speaking, Emma Lowther was this year’s Grand Marshal. But since 6-year-old girls are more familiar with the Disney movie “Frozen,” Emma was made to feel more like a Winter Princess than a dignitary, Lucke said.

Crowned with a tiara and a special wardrobe, the Parkside Elementary School first-grader was excited to find herself in the parade next to a real royal: 2015 Bartholomew County 4-H Fair Queen Caitlyn Williams.

The daughter of Jason and Hillary Lowther earned the honor when her design was chosen for the poster of the QMIX Christmas Musical fireworks.

Among the most unique parade entries was a group of skilled operators on unusual bicycles carrying what appeared to formal dining tables with lamps.

One of the most elaborate floats was from the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department, with a giant Christmas tree surrounded by what appeared to be multi-colored glowing lollipops.

“People are getting a lot more creative,” said Andrew Green, 12, a student at Central Middle School. “There’s so many more lights, decorations and fancy stuff this year.”

For the past quarter century, the unpredictable early December weather in south central Indiana has always been a concern. A snow storm followed by near-zero wind-chills canceled the event in 2013.

In order to ensure that Mother Nature wouldn’t completely ruin the downtown extravaganza, the indoor Festival of Lights Christmas Village first opened its doors in 2013 at The Commons.

For the first time this year, holiday cards were offered at the Christmas Village that will be delivered to soldiers and sailors who won’t be home for the holidays this year.

“We’ve enjoyed a very good response, with a mixture of both kids and parents,” said Gary Cheek, commander of the local Amvets, which sponsored the activity.

The cards will be picked up later today by a group from nearby Camp Atterbury, placed with a care package and sent to military personnel overseas.

Adults were lured to the upstairs of The Commons on Saturday afternoon, where almost two dozen vendors were selling everything from candles and picture frames to wreaths and baked goods.

Many youngsters stood in line for their chance to decorate a gingerbread house with marshmallows, Tootsie Rolls, Frosted Mini-Squares, chocolate kisses, mints and cookies.

Despite the sunny and dry conditions outside, a number of kids enjoyed making miniature snowmen in tubs with a mixture of baking soda, hair conditioner and glitter.

However, it was magician Travis Easterling, assisted by two girls and a remote broadcast from Santa Claus, who received the warmest welcome from local children.

When Myles Novreske was asked what his favorite thing was at the Christmas Village, the 6-year-old pointed to four miniature trains displayed by the Columbus Area Rail Road Club.

“That one over there,” Myles said. “It has Rudolph on it.”

But his 4-year-old brother, Gus Novreske, shook his head and disagreed.

“I like that other train because it has Christmas trees,” Gus said.

With a sense of diplomacy that belies her youth, 3-year-old Maggie Novreske shrugged off her brothers’ favoritism and said she just loved it all.

The downtown festivities were capped with the annual QMIX Christmas Fireworks display.

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.