Tuesday, November 19, 2013

An Insider's Guide to St. Charles Christmas Traditions

As a follow-up to yesterday’s blog, here are my best tips for getting the most out of St. Charles Christmas Traditions!

When to come: 
The festival hours are as follows:
Opening day, November 29th (Black Friday): 11-9
Every Saturday between then and Christmas: 11-9
Every Sunday between then and Christmas: 12-5
Every Wednesday and Friday between then and Christmas: 6:30pm-9
Christmas Eve: 11-2

The streets are usually packed! If you like the exciting hustle and bustle of crowds, come any time, but if you’d rather have a more laid-back experience, try coming on a Wednesday night or Saturday morning. One of the least-traveled times of day is about noon to one on Sundays. And anytime it rains or is very cold, you’ll find thinner crowds.

Where to park: 

Parking is free everywhere in St. Charles during festival hours, but it can be difficult to find a space. Don’t even bother trying to find parking on Main Street itself— head straight to the big parking lot near the Lewis and Clark Boathouse. Then walk the block or so to Main Street. Another sneaky option is to park at the City Hall Parking Garage behind the 200 block of North Main Street— it’s free at night and on weekends.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, the
crowd may look like this. In the
morning,  there's hardly anyone!

What to do:

Where to begin? There’s so much to do! For instance…

Look for someone in a costume. There should be about two to a block between 900 South Main and 200 North Main. Approach them with a loud, “Merry Christmas!” and ask them what they’re all about. They may be surrounded by a swarm of children (or fangirls, or creepy old men/women, depending on the character), but everyone is free to interact with them. Ask the characters about their stories. You can learn a lot about history, legends, and Christmas celebrations around the world this way. Don’t be surprised if the characters ask you about how you celebrate Christmas, too!

Collect cards. This is by far the most popular event of the festival! Each character has a stack of his own collector cards— I believe it’s a set of 38 this year (with three bonus cards). There isn’t a prize for collecting all of them, except for a warm glow of satisfaction, but trying to get every one is an exciting game! Most of the characters won’t let you have the card without embarrassing yourself in some way, so be prepared to sing, dance, share your favorite thing about Christmas, or shout “Merry Christmas” in a different language. Sometimes it’s possible to collect all the cards in one day, but most of the time it will take a couple weekends. Once you collect all the cards, find the Town Crier and he will shout the glad tidings to everyone in earshot.

A character card
Request a song from the carolers. When you run across a caroling group, stop and ask them to sing your favorite Christmas song. Just remember, due to the historical nature of the festival, the carolers don’t know any songs after 1900— so no “Silver Bells” or “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I love to ask them to sing their more obscure songs, which may include carols you’ve never heard before.

Buy a flower and some roasted chestnuts. Two flower girls wander the streets, selling carnations (and sometimes roses) for a dollar. Buy one for your significant other, your friend, yourself, or a random stranger! Don’t miss the chestnut roasters, who stand beside an open fire. At two for a dollar, this is the cheapest snack you’ll find on Main Street. I love roasted chestnuts— they taste like a cross between a peanut and a baked potato. Plus, they make great hand-warmers on cold days!

Visit the Gingerbread Village. Main Street Church, at 116 North Main, hosts a yearly gingerbread house contest. This year’s theme is “Christmas Around the World,” and I can’t wait to see all the beautiful and creative entries!

See Santa! Yes, there are nine other Santas out on the street, but you just have to stop and visit the big guy: Victorian Santa. This year he’s hanging out at the Katy Trail Depot in Frontier Park. Most people will take their picture with him, but you can also just say hi and get his card. At the depot you’ll also find an impressive train display.

Don't forget the wonderful photo op!
Buy food. Main Street has some really yummy treats to offer, in addition to the roasted chestnuts. Check out the homemade fudge and candy at Riverside Sweets (400 block), buy the best chocolate chip cookies ever at Grandma’s Cookies (400 block), and try a gooey-buttercake milkshake or a real phosphate soda at Little O’s (200 block of North Main). For a charming lunch, try Garden Cafe ala Fleur (500 block), and for a nice American-style supper, check out Lewis and Clark’s Restaurant (300 block), or Trailhead Brewery (900 block). If you’re just looking for a cup of coffee, meander into the artsy and laid-back Picasso’s coffeeshop (corner of Jefferson and Main).

In addition, here are five events not to miss:

Candlelight processions: There is a great parade every Saturday and Sunday at 1:30 (followed by a hilarious skit), but quite frankly, I love the candlelight procession even more. On Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8:45, all the characters walk down Main Street carrying lanterns. They end at Berthold Square (at the intersection of Main and First Capitol) and listen to the carolers sing songs. Sometimes they dance along, too!

Sunday closing ceremonies: Every Sunday at 4:30ish, all the characters gather at the gazebo on the 400 block of South Main. The carolers sing, the characters hand out last-minute cards, and you might be treated to a group merry-go-round dance with an elf, or a stirring performance of the Master of Revels’ “Jingle Bells” dance.

Marshmallow roast: On Friday nights at 7-8:30, your dream comes true… you get free marshmallows to roast over a blazing fire! This occurs in the backyard of the First State Capitol at 200 South Main. Sometimes characters will join you and tell you spooky (or not so spooky) stories.

Ambassadors of Harmony special appearance: On December 21st, the Ambassadors of Harmony (a huge and amazing all-men’s choir) will be joining the parade at 1:30 and sticking around until 3:00. Their singing is nothing short of breathtaking.

Las Posadas: Of all the special events during this season, this is my favorite. Main Street Church hosts a Spanish tradition, retelling the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, I began writing so much about it that I decided to write a whole blog post dedicated to it! Look for that tomorrow. In the meantime, here are the basics: show up anywhere on South Main Street at 6pm on December 7th, and bring a tissue.

Are you planning on coming to Christmas Traditions? What is your favorite part of the festival?


1 comment:

  1. I used to be one of the of the characters. The highlight was getting to tell my wonderful italian Santa traditions to hordes of visitors. I did this for five years. What cultural changes happened during my time! My character carried a broom. The first year, people would say,"It's the Christmas witch." They would take my picture with an Instamatic camera. The second year, kids would say, "it's Harry Potter's teacher!!" By the third year, everyone had a cell phone to take pictures. The crowd interaction was the special part.