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The spirit of Christmas shines at Cookstown’s Light Up Night (9 photos)

The annual event included shopping in the downtown core at local merchants, hot chocolate and a tree lighting ceremony

There was a double dose of festive cheer in Cookstown on Saturday during the annual Light Up Night festival, a highlight of the village’s calendar that has kicked off the holiday season in the tight-knit community for decades

“Light Up Night has been running annually since 1983,” explains Pam Arnold-Playter, past president of the Chamber of Commerce. “It has traditionally marked the kick-off to the holiday shopping season for the merchants.  For the community, it has always been a great chance to come out and celebrate our village together.”  

During daylight hours, under a grey sky that did nothing to cloud the festive atmosphere, Light Up Night festivities kicked off with a lunchtime meeting and photo opportunity with Santa and an afternoon of browsing through shops in historic downtown decked out with Christmas cheer. Stores welcomed guests with specials and smiles. Hot chocolate warmed chilled revellers at the Mad Hatters Table, a café whimsically named after the tea-loving character from Alice in Wonderful. 

But for many, the event doesn’t truly kick off until the sun settles below the horizon and the landscape darkens.  

Just before 6 p.m., crowds began to gather around the towering live Christmas tree at the village’s four corners. Necks craned to take in the entirety of the 30-foot pine as the tree lighting ceremony, the focus of Light Up Night, began. Innisfil Mayor Lynn Dollin, who years prior was on the committee that planted the tree, said a few words about the importance of community and encouraging people to shop local to support local merchants.

And then Mayor Dollin led the cheery crowd in a countdown. 

As the numbers descended anticipation built until, finally, a switch was flicked, and the Christmas tree came to dazzling life with thousands of lights. 

In a normal year, a Santa Claus parade would follow the tree lighting ceremony. But nothing has been normal since the pandemic began in early 2020. The Santa Claus parade has, with much regret, been put on hold for the past two holiday seasons.

Instead, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. there was a drive-through light display (billed as a static parade) at the community library. 

Families pulled up, received a gift bag with items donated by Chamber of Commerce member merchants, then enjoyed an enchanting luminous landscape created by local businesses. Light display finished, the evening winding down, cars stopped briefly to wave to Santa and wish him a Merry Christmas.  Arnold-Playter says almost 200 vehicles passed through the static parade.

Even if changes in the last two years have been necessitated by the global pandemic, Light Up Night has always been an evolving event.

“Pre-COVID, Light Up Night started with merchant open-houses, roving carollers, and the tree lighting followed by a Santa Claus parade,” explains Arnold-Playter. “We change things up every few years.  One year we added a fire sculpture. Another we had a reindeer petting zoo.   Last year we could not do any kind of parade or live event, so we introduced photos with Santa, and Santa and Mrs. Claus had a carriage ride throughout the village. We continued with Santa photos this year because it was so well received.  

Christmas is a time when we want to be at home, surrounded by family and friends. At its core, that’s the success of Light Up Night – gathered around the Christmas tree, revelling in festive spirit, you find yourself feeling as though perfect strangers are friends, the village home. 

Light Up Night is as much a part of the Christmas tradition in Cookstown as a stuffing-filled turkey on the holiday table or stockings hung by the chimney with care.

“We’re all looking forward to when we can do a moving parade again,” says Arnold-Player.