By KENDRA LEIGH MILLER
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN–It was a perfectly clear, chilly winter night.
The perfect night to celebrate the kickoff of the annual Festival of Lights with what else – the annual tree lighting at Updike Park located in scenic historical downtown Wickford.
Parents protected their steaming cups of coffee and hot cocoa and tried to tell the children to slow it down as they swarmed around the crowds of people who came out to enjoy the event.
The warnings of the well-intentioned parents were lost on the excited children, however, as they were too focused on trying to hunt down the best place to see their friends in the North Kingstown Community Youth Chorus and Band to await Santa’s arrival.
Wayne McCarthy waited for the tree lighting on the bench with his good friend Tom Spink. Both men grew up in town, left to “make their way in the world” but couldn’t stay away.
“The Festival of Lights is a great, stereotypical, small-town event,” McCarthy said. “It’s an incredibly great thing for the kids.”
“It’s a wonderful thing for the children,” Spink said. “It brings out an incredible level of excitement. It’s a tradition that has not changed. Stores have changed, and other things have changed but this has not changed.”
The Festival of Lights, which took place last weekend, is a four-day-long annual winter event that has been going on for nearly three decades. The center of town is filled with lights and holiday cheer and every storefront is beautifully lit with warm, holiday lights and décor.
The purpose of the four-day long event is simply a way to draw people to the small town charm, uniqueness and atmosphere to support small business for the holidays.
Along with the lights and décor, there were a multitude of events scheduled throughout the four days including breakfast and hayrides with Santa, treasure hunts and raffles, band and choral concerts, and a “best dressed” elf parade and a window judging contest.
Marta and Matt Hood have been attending the Festival of Lights event with their nine-year old daughter Nancy for several years. Nancy sings in the North Kingstown Community Youth Chorus.
“It’s a great community thing,” Marta said. “It’s one thing I love about living here. In most cities, you don’t see this.”
“And with the budget cuts, if a town can get anyone together, it’s a great thing,” Matt said. “It’s a nice, inexpensive way to do something.”
Nancy was so excited to sing in the choir, she had a hard time standing still.
“I’ve sung for the past three years and sometimes when I’m singing, I forget that the tree is going to light up and it surprises me,” she said.
Jill Johnen and her son Joshua, 12, endured the chilly temperatures to watch the tree lighting. They’ve been coming to the tree lighting and to the festival’s events since Joshua was little.
“I used to like going on the hayrides when I was younger,” he said. “Now, I like watching the tree light up.”
His mother appreciated the atmosphere it brought out.
“It’s a great way to come and support the town and small businesses,” she said. “I like that it brings out the whole North Kingstown, small town atmosphere.”
Melissa Fisher, owner of The Book Garden, had beautiful, shimmering white stars hung in her windows. For her, the Festival of Lights is free advertising.
“It brings a lot of local people together,” she said. “It looks beautiful and the residents are all decorated.”
“And it puts people in a great mood,” added Fisher’s friend and resident Sue Shriner.
Bethany Megan, co-owner of Green Ink, said the clothing and accessory store has been going strong for years now but the event certainly doesn’t hurt.
“We’ve been taking part in the event for so long,” Megan said. “We love doing the window decorating. It’s always a fun challenge for us.”
Susan Smith, owner of Different Drummer, loves the festival. Smith’s specialty is hand-blown glass ornaments and gifts, sterling silver and other unique gifts.
“It’s always an exciting thing,” she said. “It brings out the townspeople, there’s always great stuff going on, everyone’s in a great mood, it’s awesome!”
Members of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce kept very busy and warm serving cups of hot cocoa.
Fred Scholz, member of the board of directors, said he loves how it brings even more enthusiasm, life and passion to the area for the small businesses.
“Oh, this is a great way to bring people into the town to support the small businesses,” he said. “We have to support them, especially in this economy.”
Liz Dolan, president of the North Kingstown town council, shared the stage for the tree lighting with the youth chorus and band for a few songs.
She loves the festival because it’s a fun-filled weekend of tradition and events that brings the town together and brings people from the outside in.
“Times are difficult, we want to do whatever we can to help,” Dolan said. “I was walking around town the second night of the festival and it was great. There were people everywhere, the merchants were really busy, everyone was having a great time.”