Hit the lights! Downtown Fort Wayne prepares to celebrate Christmas
Thousands expected to wind through the streets
His title is events and programming manager for the Downtown Improvement District.
Santa’s Helper might be a better one.
Alongside numerous local organizations, Rick Zolman and a team of staffers provide oversight to Fort Wayne’s richest Holiday traditions and memories.
They preserve the old ones, while they are at it, spark a few new favorites through the DID’s HolidayFest.
Back in the High Lights Again
The biggest event on the schedule is the Night of Lights celebration. It that sends tens of thousands weaving through the central city as key landmark buildings are illuminated for the season. It’s capped off with fireworks at Parkview Field.
Night of Lights is Wednesday, Nov. 24, just before Thanksgiving. Like a ceremonial first pitch in baseball, HolidayFest serves as a picturesque start to the season.
“All of those things mean so much to this community and so many people want to come out and be a part of the event and be a part of the magic,” Zolman said.
“You multiply that by 20,000 to 25,000 people that are going to be here for that night if we have great weather, and it’s just a huge impact on individuals for the holidays.”
2021 is unique because it is the first event since COVID-19 curtailed the 2020 event.
He says they will take the lemon of the pandemic and make lemonade. First, it’s a chance to start fresh with an event that everyone loves and dress it up with a new bow and wrapping paper.
Heightened safety protocols and no celebration left a lot of disappointment.
“Fortunately, we did get the lights lit, and then folks could come down and enjoy them at their leisure in a safe manner. But it just wasn’t the same.”
He says he expects attendees have to a new appreciation and respect for the event.
“People realized how much of a tradition it is for them and how much it meant and were sorely disappointed that they couldn’t be there live last year,” Zolman says.
Testamony to Generations
The spirit of the night is a living testament to at least two generations.
Santa Claus glowing on the PNC Bank building still has the same impact on a kid in 2021 as it did when it first became a Wolf and Dessauer trademark and a beloved community tradition dating to the 1930s.
The tradition started with the wreath that still hangs downtown today and continued later with Santa. Even then it was a sight that drew plenty of attention.
“Through the ’50s, it was the highlight of the Christmas season to come down and visit Wolf and Desauer and see the lights, interact with Santa and Wee Willie Wand (his elf),” Zolman said. “So those things and those folks are aging now, but they’ve carried it on to their kids, their grandkids, their great grandkids. And so the opportunity to carry on that tradition and see the folks smile and see the folks come out and just let them be young again, if only for a moment, is really very special.”
New Traditions, Too
Some of the newer events have become cherished moments, too.
Fireworks at Parkview Field mix a uniquely American style of celebration while capping an energized holiday event.
After the opening night, there’s still plenty to do.
HolidayFest Kris Kringle Village at the Arts United Plaza will run simultaneous with the Nutcracker ballet.
The Embassy hosts the Festival of Trees and the History Center hosts the Festival of Gingerbread.
Many stores and businesses will share holiday storefront displays. The downtown theme this year is snow globe. Each organization will interpret what that looks like.
“That’s another tradition that we brought back in 2015. And another reason to draw people downtown — for them to look at the windows,” Zolman said. “The other part is we have all these beautiful murals over the last four years or so. Downtown Fort Wayne is becoming this outdoor art scene. To mix the murals in with the holiday season and the lights is just another cool opportunity that probably should get more attention than what it does.”
Zolman said the night is accommodating to all religious and belief systems.
“It always seems to be about unity and community,” he said.
There’s still plenty of wow.
“When those lighting displays pop on and you hear the crowd, they have a verbal reaction with the oooos and the ahhhhs,” Zolman said. “We’re excited that we’re able to do that and that our part is just to make sure that things go smoothly. We’ve been pretty fortunate they have done that over the years.”