Music, Wassail and Santa? Must be the Denton Holiday Lighting Festival!
By Alison Eldridge
Denton Live July-Dec 2012
A December breeze blows into the station, turning young cheeks a shade of pink. In the distance, the horn of a train sounds and the subtle clack clack of metal on metal teases the imaginations of parents waiting with their children. The horn bellows one final time and the brakes release with a hiss as the Wonderland Express rolls to a stop. No one needs to hear the expected “All aboard!” The passengers embark quickly, eager for the journey northward to the annual Denton Holiday Lighting Festival. Santa – the real one – and the annual tree lighting await them at their final stop near the historic Courthouse-on-the-Square downtown.
Ryan Thompson and his 2-year-old son hopped aboard the Wonderland Express – in real life, the new A-train to Denton – last year in Carrollton and watched out windows adorned with snowflakes, snowmen and stars as the bustling landscape of the Dallas suburbs gave way to the increasingly rural ambiance around Denton. For kids like his son, says Ryan, “It’s kind of this journey to the North Pole. Of course for him, trains are really neat. Anything that’s big and moves is cool. He went up and down the aisles greeting everybody.”
At the final stop, jolly ol’ St. Nick is always there to greet the kids. Like many of the train riders, Santa grabbed a lift on the complimentary pedicab – a bicycle with a passenger cab attached to the rear – to get to the main event for the evening: the lighting of the trees surrounding Denton’s 116-year-oldcourthouse, a Texas landmark.
“The Square is just alive,” Ryan says. “Here there’s music. Over there, the mayor’s lighting the tree. The courthouse museum is all lit up.” Horse-drawn carriages clop around the Square, pulling families bundled up against the cold, while others stroll from store to store, sipping hot cider as part of the annual Wassail Fest tasting contest. A long line forms at Santa’s tent. “There’s something to do every 20 feet,” says Ryan. “It’s surprising how real it feels.” He compares it to Times Square in New York but with a cozier feel.
Now in its 24th year, the tree lighting is an annual tradition dating back to 1988 and the creation of the Denton Holiday Festival Association. “The festival itself is like witnessing a Norman Rockwell painting come to life,” says David Pierce, who directs the 11-piece Holiday Lighting Orchestra.
White lights dot the post oak trees around the courthouse year-round, but on the first Friday after Thanksgiving, at the precise moment when the sun dips below the horizon, the mayor, Santa and one lucky child (the winner of the Denton Record-Chronicle’s annual contest) light the largest tree in the Square. The towering 20-foot-tall pine sparkles with a fusion of red, blue and green lights.
What gives the evening a Denton twist, however, is the music, reflecting the city’s thriving arts scene, says David. “There’s such a depth of talent in this town, and I don’t know of many places like it.” Local musicians ring in the holiday cheer, playing at nine different performance areas around the Square, everything from hip-hop dancing to garage band music. Those performances wind down before the Holiday Music Spectacular, an hour-and-a-half show which has featured some of Denton’s best-known performers, including members of indie-rock band Midlake and folk singer Sarah Jaffe in recent years.
“I feel what makes a show like Denton’s Holiday Lighting so special is that all of our ‘big stars’ are tied to Denton in their own unique way,” says David, who serves as co-chair of programming for the annual bash. “Some are born and raised here, some teach or attend school at the University of North Texas, and some are pillars of our musical community that have made Denton their home.” Musical guests in 2011 ranged from UNT’s One O’Clock Lab Band, which has received six Grammy nominations for its jazz productions since 1976, to Texas native singer/songwriter Chris Flemmons, who founded the annual 35 Denton music festival and plays with his indie band, The Baptist Generals.
“What I love about Denton is that Denton is very original and very independently minded,” Ryan says. “Sure there’s holiday music, but some of it was being played on electric guitar.” In past years, performers included the Denton Community Band and the Syncopated Ladies, who performed a tap routine to classic Christmas tunes. David Pierce says that individuality is a must for making the festival a musical success. “We are very lucky to have such a diverse group of musical talent in this town, and so much of it,” he says. Musician and radio show host Paul Slavens, known for his crazy onstage musical compositions, narrated the Dr. Seuss classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas
!, at last year’s festival.
For those looking to try something different, the Denton Main Street Association invites revelers to participate in the annual Wassail Fest, a cider tasting competition. Nearly 30 businesses create their own special concoctions of cider and spices, including cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg, in hopes of winning the coveted Wassail Fest crown. The judges are the festivalgoers, who vote for their favorite. The tradition started in Denton 12 years ago. In the cider-producing counties of southern England, the phrase “Waes Hail” is a salutation meaning “good health.” Ryan says he was impressed after trying a cup. “I had never had Wassail. I really enjoyed it,” he says. “See that’s another reason I love Denton. You can go up here and have an experience that you’ve never had.”
For the kids, of course, it’s all about Santa. He’s the real deal with his red suit, long white beard (that he maintains year-round) and the ever familiar Ho ho ho! “We’ve got an amazing Santa,” says Kelley Pound, this year’s association co-chair. “I think a lot of people hold off their visits to him until the festival because we simply have an amazing Santa.” (Read our story about Santa online at the Denton Live archives, the July-December 2010 issue.)
After greeting travelers as they disembark from the Wonderland Express, Santa takes a pedicab to the Square to light the tree before hearing the Christmas wishes of boys and girls of all ages. He has his work cut out for him: Each year the line of children wraps around the courthouse as they wait for their chance to walk into Santa’s white tent and assure him they’ve been good this year.
The Christmas pine tree – a fixture on the Square year-round – has its good years and bad, but that too is part of the tradition, laughs Micah Pazoureck, the festival chairwoman. “Some years, it doesn’t look so good, like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.”
Ryan and his son plan to return this year. “It really felt like being somewhere in the north or the northeast versus what we normally get for Christmas in Texas,” he says. “It really feels like a journey to somewhere far away, and it only took us 30 minutes on the train to do it.”
What: 24th annual Denton Holiday Lighting Festival
Get your Christmas on:
Nov. 30, 2012
Christmas for Kids: Make sure to bring an unwrapped gift for the Denton Community Toy Drive.
Be here by: 5:30 pm when the event kicks off with a community sing-along and lighting of giant Christmas tree. Musical and dance groups perform around the Square until 8 p.m. when the Holiday Music Spectacular closes out the evening with a variety of local performers.
Don’t get lost:
Parking is available at the Bayless-Selby House on Mulberry Street or at Wells Fargo on Locust Street.
Keep an eye out for: Santa ($5 for pictures with him), horse-drawn wagon rides ($3), the children’s craft tent, the annual Wassail Fest competition to determine who makes the best hot cider for the holidays, and much more.