They Will Bring Us Horses and Lights

Winterfest kicks off the holiday season with half a million bulbs and one Blues Brother.

Step into Christmas: Winterfest gallops into Public - Square on Saturday.
Step into Christmas: Winterfest gallops into Public Square on Saturday.
Despite the late-November chill, Linda Meredith felt warm and fuzzy inside when she saw the horse-drawn carriages round the corner. As the Clydedales, Percherons, and miniature horses clippity-clopped past her on Public Square last year, the Lorain librarian had a Miracle on 34th Street moment. "[The carriages] were lighted and decorated, and the horses were all gussied up," she recalls. "Have you ever seen a picture book [based on] 'Over the River and Through the Woods'? That's how it is: like you're going to Grandmother's house."

That's how Joel Solloway wants you to feel at the month-long Winterfest, which kicks off Saturday with a one-hour parade of 50 old-fashioned carriages and dozens of horses trucked in from southern Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. This year, the caravan will be led by Santa Claus, accompanied by grand marshal and Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd. "It's incredibly visual," says Solloway, who's organized the parade for the past three years. "You've got the gorgeous look of the lights on Public Square. The carriages are refurbished and lit beautifully."

Solloway came up with the idea last year, after he'd heard of a similar November procession in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it burg of Lebanon, Ohio (outside Cincinnati). After wheeling and dealing with carriage owners there, he persuaded them to perform their horse-and-buggy show in Cleveland. "We've made it more extravagant than [Lebanon] had ever done," says Solloway. "We didn't want to mimic the same parade route [down Euclid Avenue] that's always been done in Cleveland. We wanted our own signature on this."

The parade starts rolling south at Ontario Street and Rockwell Avenue, next to the Old Stone Church. It takes a break on the southwest quadrant of the square, where Santa will lead a holiday sing-along. At the end of "Jingle Bells," he'll flip the switch on half a million lights hung on sculptures, mechanical Roman candles, and a mammoth Christmas tree.

The convoy of carriages then heads to Tower City, where it veers north to West Third Street. There, the Shaw High School marching band and the Cleveland Public Schools' swing ensemble will trumpet the start of the holidays with a medley of carols. And for the grand finale, the night sky will explode with a 12-minute fireworks extravaganza, before St. Nick jumps into his North Pole Express fire engine and returns to his workshop.

The fest continues through the end of December with a string of holiday plays, tree lightings, and a Cleveland Pops Orchestra concert at Severance Hall on New Year's Eve. The parade is expected to draw as many as 60,000 spectators -- even if the temperature is in the single digits. "It lends itself to a great picture-postcard," says Solloway. "It's so majestic and really a lot about yesteryear. We give them something that's so visually stunning that they can't help but walk away with a smile on their face and say, 'Man, this was worth coming out in the cold.'"