Home for Christmas: Festival of Lights to return in 2021

An traditional yuletide celebration is set to return to downtown Columbus in a little over a month.

The Board of Works approved a special use of right-of-way request for the Festival of Lights Parade on Tuesday. According to its downtown special event application, the 30th annual Festival of Lights will take place on Saturday, Dec. 4, starting at 6 p.m.

The parade typically draws an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people to downtown Columbus to see floats decorated with lights as they wind their way down Washington Street and other nearby streets.

Organizers have requested closures of Third through Eighth streets between Lindsey and Franklin streets for the event. According to a route map on the festival’s website, the parade will move south on Brown Street, east on Third, north on Washington and then west on Eighth.

Joyce Lucke, president of JAKKS Inc., the nonprofit agency that organizes the parade, previously estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 people are involved in the event in some capacity, including spectators, participants and others.

According to the event website, the parade planning committee will follow recommendations from local, state and national health officials in regards to COVID-19 testing, vaccinations and gathering guidelines.

Current safety guidelines for volunteers and participants include:

Limiting the parade to 75 entries (a 25% reduction)

Social distancing

Face coverings (regardless of vaccination status)

Volunteers and participants are also encouraged to get vaccinated. Some volunteers may also be asked to wear additional personal protective equipment, “as warranted by their role.”

The 2021 parade will also not have a grand marshal. In the past, a child has been selected to fill this role.

Spectators along the parade route are encouraged to follow the most updated CDC guidelines as of Dec. 4.

“We encourage spectators to wear a mask in the crowded outdoor setting of the parade route as it will be difficult to socially distance,” organizers wrote. “Protect yourself when in close contact with others who may not be fully vaccinated. People who have a condition or are taking medications that weaken their immune system should take all precautions recommended for unvaccinated people, especially wearing a well-fitted mask.”

Lucke said that while masks are the top concern, they would also encourage social distancing (as possible) and vaccinations for spectators. She added that spectators should be “courteous” to one another, stay off the street and move back when asked to do so. There will also be portable toilets along the route, so attendees who need to use a restroom shouldn’t necessarily all flock to The Commons.

Organizers wrote that they will continue to assess COVID-19 protocols and will update the public regarding any changes. According to the parade’s Facebook page, the 2021 event may be cancelled if COVID-19 “prompts local, state or national restrictions.”

“I think what they’re proposing is within reason, within our restrictions for events in the downtown area,” said executive director of public works/city engineer Dave Hayward. “And they’ve got more to do, but this gets them up and running.”

The 2020 parade was canceled about three months in advance after organizers determined that the event posed too big of a risk of spreading COVID-19.

“Fingers crossed that in the next 30 days there’s not a huge spike,” Lucke said. Organizers are watching COVID-19 positivity rates and have also spoken with local health officials, who indicated that they should follow current guidelines from the CDC and Indiana Department of Health.

Lucke said parade entries for this year’s event have filled up fast. She expects to reach the limit by this weekend and guessed that, as of Wednesday afternoon, there were fewer than 10 spots left. Organizers shared on social media that over 50% of available slots were already filled as of Oct. 11 — just one week after entry packets were made available.

However, Lucke added if the entry limit is reached, anyone interested in entering the parade can still go through the signup process and be put on a waiting list. Entries on the waiting list will have their fee refunded if they don’t make it into the parade.

According to Lucke, popular entries at the event often include marching bands, fire departments and Dorel Juvenile Group, which is this year’s title sponsor.

“This particular year, I think no matter who’s in the parade, everyone’s going to be happy, having missed last year due to COVID,” she said.

Of course, taking a year off from the parade is enough to make organizers forget how much work goes into the event, Lucke noted with a laugh. Still, they’re happy to put it on, as people look forward to the event.

She called it “multigenerational”, with some past parade participants bringing their children and even grandchildren to see the show.

“We know this is a really important event to the community, and it means a lot to the community,” Lucke said. “So we’re very happy to be back, doing it once again.”

Other local events that often coincide with the parade date are also scheduled to return in December.

The Commons is planning to host the annual Christmas Village from 2-4:30 p.m. on Dec. 4, said manager Shanda Sasse. This free event will be in The Commons’ performance hall.

Sarah Gehring with QMIX 107.3 said that the station’s Christmas Music Fireworks will also return but not on the same day or at the same location as the parade. Instead, the fireworks will begin at about 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 3 at CERAland Park.

Gehring said that this will be part of the kickoff for the park’s new Christmas lights display.

However, she added that QMIX will continue to be the media sponsor for the Festival of Lights.

Lucke likewise said that the station will still “have a presence at the parade” and announce entries as they go by.