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Norwich Winter Festival has new look but preserves traditions

Norwich — In the grips of a global pandemic, holiday events are being shelved or cut back, but several city groups were determined to keep the Winter Festival alive, restoring some traditions and launching new ones.

There will be no crowds at City Hall on Dec. 4 for the 29th annual Light up City Hall kick-off and no parade Dec. 5. The Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce cannot hold its indoor small business fair. Unrelated to COVID-19, the old downtown swag lights were shot, and the giant red and green rose that adorned Chelsea Parade is in disrepair.

But festival committees are just as busy. JJ Johnson, City Hall facilities and grounds manager, and his wife, Mary donated a 26-foot tree for City Hall plaza.

Jacquie Barbarosa, executive assistant to the city manager and Norwich Public Utilities Programs Coordinator Jeanne Kurasz have been working as co-filmmakers, directors and producers of the first virtual Light Up City Hall event. The video will air at 6 p.m.  Dec. 4 on the city website, www.norwichct.org, and the City of Norwich Facebook page.

On Nov. 19, Karen Goede of Norwich drove her freshly restored 1953 candy cane red and white Chevy pickup, decked out with Christmas gifts, wreaths and garland, to pick up Santa for the video recording at City Hall.

“It’s so exciting to bring joy to other people,” Goede said as the video directors planned how she and Santa would drive onto the pedestrian plaza to greet viewers and do the countdown to turn on the lights.

Pebbles, morning show co-host on Jammin’ 107.7 FM and annual Light up City Hall emcee, gave the play-by-play as the truck arrived. She greeted Santa and led the countdown for Santa to pull the lever and turn on the lights.

“Usually, there are hundreds of smiling faces here,” Santa said. “They want to help me. You guys at home, you get to count with me, and count loud!”

The video will include holiday greetings from local fire departments, American Ambulance and civic groups and videos of the tree and lights setups. Local actress and singer Sally Masse will sing Christmas carols.

As Santa prepared to film his farewell message sitting on the Chevy front bumper, Bianca Arroyo and her 7-year-old daughter, Laneyah Rush, quietly approached and asked if they could say hello. They did better than that, as Santa invited Laneyah to join him at the truck.

“You’re the lucky one,” Santa said. “You’re here.” The two shouted “Merry Christmas!” and waved to the camera.

Barbarosa said the committee used donations from last year to start a new holiday tradition of decorating Howard T. Brown Memorial Park at Norwich Harbor. Public Works crews strung white lights on the gazebo, trees and up lamp posts. The harbor camera has been turned toward the gazebo.

The city invites civic and religious groups to add to the park displays, hoping families will come for evenings to enjoy the lights and the harbor. The Cathedral of St. Patrick will set up a Nativity scene, and the local Jewish community will move the Chelsea Parade Menorah to Brown Park.

Mayor Peter Nystrom said the park holiday display complements the concept of the Peace Pole erected several years ago at the far end of Brown Park that welcomes people in many languages to the city.

“To me, it’s just another extension of that,” Nystrom said. “At the same time, it’s a celebration of the season and everyone is invited to participate. It’s open to any denomination who wishes to be part of it.”

Downtown streets won’t be barren of lights. Norwich Community Development Corp. and Global City Norwich, which runs street festivals and business seminars, are spearheading a project to install new overhead white lights along lower Broadway and Main Street in December.

The zig-zag patterned lights will use the old light fixtures on the buildings, and the new lights will be year-round, to add “ambiance” to downtown, NCDC President Jason Vincent said. The $30,000 project is being funded with $25,000 from the city, $2,000 from Global City Norwich and $3,000 from NCDC, Vincent said.

There won’t be a Winter Festival parade, but on Dec. 5, the Greater Norwich Area Chamber of Commerce is inviting people to don masks and come downtown for an outdoor Shop Local vendor fair from noon to 4 p.m. Dozens of vendors will be spaced along Broadway, Franklin and Bath streets. Restaurants and shops and food trucks will participate.

Many homeowners have been setting up Christmas house and lawn lights early this year. The Norwich Events Organization is using that momentum to revive the city holiday lights contest, which ended several years ago.

Trophies will be awarded in several categories, and all registered participants will be entered into a drawing for gift cards from local businesses. Rules and registration forms are at www.GoNorwichCT.com.

“Let's shine as a community,” Norwich Events Organization Chairwoman Rebecca Alberts said in the contest announcement. “Deck your lawns, doors, windows or whatever you have and help us spread some light this holiday season. It is difficult to be apart at this time and not participate in all the holiday events we love. We hope that community decorations will raise community spirits and bring joy to the residents.”

c.bessette@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the date the Light Up City Hall video will be posted and the first name of the singer on the video.

Norwich Winter Festival schedule

Norwich Winter Festival’s altered schedule:

Friday, Dec. 4: Light up City Hall: Virtual ceremony posted at 6 p.m. on www.norwichct.org and City of Norwich Facebook page.

Saturday, Dec. 5: Shop Local outdoor vendor fair, noon to 4 p.m., Broadway, Bath and Franklin streets, downtown Norwich.

Holiday house decorating contest: Register through Dec. 15 at www.GoNorwichCT.org.

Daily: Holiday lights display at Howard T. Brown Memorial Park, Chelsea Harbor Drive.

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