Say this about the 26th Annual Festival of Lights Parade: It rolled through Third and Washington Streets as a grand procession of truth in advertising.
From fourth-grade grand marshal Bella Newman-Stump’s bright, reindeer-and-sleigh float to the Sound of North Marching Band’s blinking instruments, the event was lit as festively as a Christmas tree Saturday amid 36-degree temperatures downtown.
And the star of that tree, if you will, was Columbus native and retiring NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Tony Stewart, waving with light-tipped gloves from an Indy 500 special edition Chevrolet Camaro near the front of 98-entry gathering.
Only trouble was, in the early evening darkness, most in the crowd near Third and Washington streets, where onlookers were bunched 10 people deep, seemed not to recognize him until parade emcee Brittany Gray announced him.
A small shout rang out from a crowd — one that several people mentioned was at least slightly larger than last year’s estimated 5,000 people along the mile-long route.
“I’m kind of sad he’s retiring,” said LauRhona LaCroix, a NASCAR fan. “He’s been such an icon for years.”
At the Festival of Lights Christmas Village inside The Commons, organizers estimated the crowd of mostly parents, grandparents and children to be down slightly to 1,500 compared to last year’s 2,000 visitors.
But those on hand were plenty enthusiastic. Among those was 4-year-old Louis Reid, enthralled with the five toy locomotives chugging around small tracks on the venue’s first floor. Faces of the members of the Columbus Area Railroad Club were alight with as much enthusiasm watching the youngster as the child’s face lit up watching the electric trains.
“I’m very surprised,” said mom Natalie Reid, her eyes wide as she watched her son lean close to the kinetic displays. “I didn’t even think he would be interested. But I can’t even pull him away.”
Club members have seen such reactions each year they have placed the tracks at the event.
“I think it’s the novelty of it, in part, for kids today,” said club member Mike Knoll.
Upstairs, members of the kidscommons museum patiently helped children make small, three-dimensional Christmas trees.
Museum educator Jessica Norcross helped with the details of one youngster’s tiny tree.
“You just fold the paper around the edges to give your branches more shape,” Norcross said as she demonstrated.
Coleman Hartsook, 11, already had plans for his light blue piece of artwork before he even finished. At home, it will hang on the tree.
“I’m used to this,” Hartsook said, “because I used to do origami.”
Amid the surroundings, the sweet aroma of hot chocolate wafted from the Columbus Symphony Orchestra booth, where members also were raffling an oversized, stuffed bear.
Plus, an orchestra brass quintet performed Christmas carols to make a nice soundtrack for the afternoon. Passersby enjoyed it so much that the group earned applause for its first number of “Deck the Halls.”
Musician Chris Clerc hardly minded being in the background as people moved through the area.
“A formal concert is one thing,” Clerc said, mentioning today’s annual, free Christmas concert at 3:30 p.m. at The Commons. “But a casual environment like this is more like the way music performances were maybe 100 years ago.”
At the other end of The Commons, the aroma of handmade scented soaps dominated, not far from where Laura Daily sold what she playfully termed Reindeer Chow snacks for dogs. The small sack containers were designed to look like reindeer faces.
“It started kind of slow,” Daily said. “But it has picked up a little.”
Number of marching bands in the parade
Number of Christmas Village vendors
Number of parade entries
Estimated crowd at Christmas Village