“This is the season and YOU are the reason why we gather to celebrate the bounty of this year in our community, said Town Crier Tom Pekar, as he welcomed the hundreds of people who gathered at the Court House, wrapped in scarves, topped with hats and holding candles to this year’s Candlelight Stroll.
“By the powers invested in me, I declare the opening of the 2019 Candlelight stroll. Huzzah! Huzzah! HUZZAH!”
Pekar introduced Paul MacIntyre, the chair of the board of directors for the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce.
MacIntyre thanked the crowd for participating in the 30th anniversary of the stroll, and visitors for attending, but had a special message for locals.
“To the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake, thank you for supporting this special evening. It is events such as tonight that remind us how fortunate we are to live in such a generous and warm community. Attendance records continue to be broken every year and I can’t imagine a place on earth at this moment where the human spirit is stronger. My heart is full, being up here,” he said, addressing the crowd from the small balcony over the Court House steps.
Thirty years ago, the Candlelight Stroll was started by local residents Arthur Nieuwdorp and his wife Irene. Nieuwdorp developed the idea in 1988 during the lead-up to the Calgary Winter Olympics. He watched the Olympic torch relay as it travelled across the country and was inspired to create a community event that would reflect the spirit of giving and the beauty of a NOTL Christmas.
The funds raised from the sale of the candles that first year were donated to a little girl with cystic fibrosis. This fundraising tradition continued into the subsequent Candlelight Strolls.
Over the years, money raised from candle sales has been donated directly to families and children in need or donated to specific causes. About 10 years ago, proceeds from the Candlelight Stroll were donated to the pediatric wing of the Walker Cancer Centre.
As MacIntyre explained, “He [Arthur Nieuwdorp] wanted to brighten a family’s life at Christmas time, and that is what we are here to do tonight. Working with the Chamber of Commerce and Trisha Romance, the Nieuwdorps led an initiative that has stayed strong over the years, captivating the interest of all who attend and leading us into the holiday season, with fellowship and hope.” Since Nieuwdorp’s passing, the tradition has continued on in his spirit.
MacIntyre thanked the organizers of this year’s stroll, the volunteers that sold candles at the stalls in front of stores on Queen Street. He also thanked the students of Vineridge Academy who collected food donations for Newark Neighbours. These food donations help the food bank fill its shelves so they can fulfill their vision: That no resident in Niagara-on-the-Lake need be hungry.
Next, the president of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce and NOTL Tourism, Eduardo Lafforgue, came to the microphone. He greeted the crowd and thanked them for attending this “most cherished tradition,” explaining the recipient of the proceeds from the candle sales this year would be Delroy Castella, who for the past 35 years, has left his home country of Jamaica to spend eight months of the year working in NOTL as a farm worker. This past Sept 4, Castella suffered a stroke while picking peaches in a local orchard. A dedicated employee, Castella finished his work, and then rode his bike to the nearest clinic. He was rushed to the hospital and has been recuperating and receiving therapy over the past two months. The stroke has left him with difficulties speaking, and the money will help him return home to Jamaica and continue his recuperation.
The board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce was moved by his story and decided to declare Castella as the recipient of the majority of this year’s candle sale proceeds. Lafforgue wished Castella, “a very, very happy return to your family and a prompt recuperation.”
He also said that $1,000 from the stroll proceeds will go to the Christmas gift program for the farmworkers, “to help buy welcome kits and reflective vests to make their stay in our community safer.”
The final speaker to address the crowd was Lord Mayor Betty Disero.
“I can’t think of a better way to share our common love for Niagara-on-the-Lake than to be here, listening to beautiful carols and raising funds for a worthy cause. Niagara-on-the-Lake is a diverse community that has a strong core. We open our arms to visitors and to many events presented by the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber of Commerce, we continue to build on our strong reputation as a beautiful place to celebrate the season.”
She introduced Debbie Whitehouse to start everyone off singing O Come All Ye Faithful, accompanied by the Salvation Army band. As the leaders of this year’s event, Delroy Castella and Lord Mayor Betty Disero, emerged from the Court House to pass on the flame from their lit candles to others, before climbing into the horse-drawn carriages, with the town crier signalling the beginning of the stroll as the Salvation Army band launched into an up-tempo Good King Wenceslas.
As the carriages carrying Disero and Castella led the way through the route, many people continued to share the flame to light their candles, before joining the procession through the town. Children in new snowsuits walked stiffly alongside strollers carrying their bundled-up younger siblings. Friends with hot beverages strolled along beside couples walking arm and arm, all enjoying the lights and atmosphere of our Old Town.
Some of the parka-clad participants were drawn to the lights and the warmth of the stores that remained open, while most others followed the crowd behind the carriages down Queen Street.
Strollers were entertained first by the Fort George Fife and Drum Corps that played on Queen Street, before turning on Victoria Street enticed by the sound of the Grace United Church carollers singing Joy to the World.
As a light snowfall began, the strollers travelled down Johnson Street, where they were entertained by a children’s choir singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and further along a seven-member brass band at the corner of Johnson and Gate Streets. Making their way back to Queen Street, walkers gathered to watch Tracey Frena as she conducted the Niagara Bethany Hand Bell Choir in a chorus of bells that rang with a beautiful sound into the chilly evening.
Walking past Queen Street toward Prideaux Street, the crowd could hear the Niagara Christian Assembly Choir singing Alleluia, and further on the Jubal Cottage School had their own choir. This artistic co-op, based in Niagara Falls, draws home-schooled children together from all over Niagara to foster creative exploration.
According to drama teacher Sarah Hobbs, some years ago the group came to participate in the stroll and the kids started singing on the route. People commented on how much they enjoyed their singing, so they decided to participate by officially singing as a choir.
As the strollers meandered toward King Street, they congregated in front of the King St. Gallery to witness the rich tones of A Cappella Niagara, an all-male group comprising 20-plus members.
Further down King Street, strollers were surprised by a flash mob of ladies wearing furry red Stetsons, dancing to Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You, led by Zumba Nana Patricia Brown. Brown teaches Zumba Gold to mainly women aged 40 to 85. Her zumba students are from all over the Niagara region. Brown said that she and 10 women first attended the Candlelight Stroll about six years ago. Each year, more and more came to join in the fun. This year, 56 women came to join the stroll and dance in the street. One of Brown’s Zumba Gold students, Toby McCreadie, is 83 years old but says she feels more like the store “Forever 21.” She says Brown’s Zumba Gold classes “keeps you young.” She keeps coming back each year to participate in the stroll, she said, because “everything is so beautiful, the people, the lights, the houses.”
After shuffling past the flash mob, many strollers wandered in and out of some of the open stores. Many more walked back to their cars to return home after a pleasant evening.
To finish off this reporter’s evening, a side trip into the Taste of Britain ended with a purchase of a Brown Betty teapot and some McVities Club Orange Cream to enjoy the perfect hot cup of tea and biscuits while warming up by the fire humming Christmas carols.
Additional food donations can be dropped off at Newark Neighbours location at 310 John St. East in Niagara-on-the-Lake.