With all its stately homes and historic sites opulently decked out for the season, not to mention the elaborate Sinterklaas parade in Rhinebeck on December 1, Dutchess County definitely knows how to do up the onset of winter in style. And yet the evergreen laurels for “Best Event” of the holiday season were awarded by Dutchess County Tourism to an annual extravaganza in gritty downtown Poughkeepsie: the massive parade, tree-lighting and fireworks display known as the Celebration of Lights, which returns on Friday, November 30.
It’s tempting to credit the opening of Walkway over the Hudson as a peerless vantage point for viewing the region’s only wintertime fireworks with the popularity of the Celebration of Lights. But the truth is that the event has been packing lower Main Street – a place where a lot of folks might usually have qualms about hanging out outdoors after dark – for 19 years now. The parade steps off from the corner of Main and Garden Streets, just a block uptown from Civic Center Plaza, at 6:30 p.m., and arriving early to snag a good spot along the parade route is advisable.
Perhaps what makes the Celebration so special among the mid-Hudson’s Yuletide events is the fact that it’s always nondenominational and inclusive. You don’t have to buy into any particular religious interpretation of the significance of the season to enjoy it. Nor do you have to surrender to the manic consumerism associated in these times with Christmas and, to a lesser extent, Hanukkah. The false dichotomy of spirituality-versus-materialism breaks down in the streets of Po-town, and all sorts of people can just come out and celebrate, thumbing their cold noses at the short, dark days of the waning year. It’s kind of like Mardi Gras with optional snow.
The participants in the parade reflect the eclectic spirit of the event. You get the usual waving public officials and beauty pageant queens; high school and fire company marching bands; floats assembled by local social clubs, civic organizations and businesses. Bagpipers, biker brigades and the Hudson Valley Philharmonic will all pass in review, and this year there’ll even be a drag queen in full regalia: self-proclaimed Goth Goddess Isis Vermouth. Much-anticipated highlights always include the infectious sounds of Brazilian percussion ensemble IABAS, leading a rhythm band of hundreds of elementary school kids, and the giant puppets borne aloft by Arm-of-the-Sea Theatre. Santa Claus himself brings up the rear, of course, astride a gleaming fire engine.
The parade will pause for three tree-lighting ceremonies: first near the intersection of Main and Market Streets, then at Dongan Square Park at Clover Street and the third in the middle of the Walkway. After the line of march passes, you face a tough decision: You can surge down with the crowds to the waterfront to catch the fireworks, which commence at 7:15 p.m.; access to the Walkway will cost you $5, but you can get a good view from Waryas Park at the bottom of Main Street as well. Or you might stick closer to Market Street so that you can enjoy the warmth of the Bardavon 1869 Opera House during its traditional screening of a family-friendly film classic, beginning at 8 p.m.
This year’s movie offering is Tim Burton’s featurelength directing debut, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), starring Paul Reubens as Pee-Wee Herman. Admission costs $6, and an additional contribution of $3 is suggested if you want to fight local hunger by supporting the Bardavon’s annual “Dinner and a Show” fundraising campaign for the Beverly Close Memorial Food Pantry in Poughkeepsie and the Queens Galley in Kingston.
As always, a group of restaurants affiliated with the Poughkeepsie River District Business Association – Amici’s, the Derby, Caffe Aurora, Café Boca, Mahoney’s, Milanese, Noah’s Ark and River Station – will offer entertainment, food and beverage specials to festivalgoers. Other primary sponsors of the event include the Bardavon, the First Niagara Bank Foundation, Walkway over the Hudson and the Friends of Little Italy, plus a whole long list of local businesses, professional organizations and media outlets. For further details about the Celebration of Lights, including info on where to leave your car, visit www.bardavon.org or www.pokriverdistrict.org.
Poughkeepsie’s festive launch of the season continues on Saturday, December 1 with the second annual Family Holiday Scavenger Hunt throughout the River District and Little Italy. Participation is free, and registration begins at 1:30 p.m. at Caffe Aurora, where registrants will pick up their item cards and area maps. Prizes will be awarded to all who complete their cards, with drawings held at 4 p.m. at the Derby. Complimentary refreshments will be provided to all participants.
Celebration of Lights, Friday, November 30, downtown Poughkeepsie; 6:30 p.m. parade departs Main & Garden Streets (free), 7:15 fireworks at Hudson riverfront (free/$5 Walkway access), 8 p.m. Bardavon screening of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure ($6); (845) 473-2072 www.bardavon.org or www.pokriverdistrict.org.