Story by Brittany Fholer Photos by Christopher Blumenshine Denton Live Fall-Winter 2015
‘Tis a magical time. For thousands of years in the cold of winter, two symbols have come together as a celebration of life. Amidst the dreariness of the season, when many living things sleep or die off, evergreen trees stand out in their starkly contrasting color.
Festooned in sparkling lights, the traditional symbol of life in both pagan and Christian worlds, the trees seem to sing out and draw revelers to them, bringing cheer and good tidings as they have since the olden days.
And once upon a time, on a cold and blustery evening in early January, also known as the Twelfth Night in medieval southwest and southeast England, men, women and children bundled up to keep warm as they walked throughout the apple orchards.
A Wassail King and Queen led the singing of carols and the drinking of a heated cider mulled from the harvested fruit.
They toasted to the health of the cider apple trees and soaked bread, cake, or toast in their drinks. While traveling orchard to orchard, they buried the soaked pieces at the roots or hung them in the branches to tide the tree spirits over and scare away evil ones, thus ensuring a successful harvest of the fruit come autumn.
Wassailing became a way for people to get together and sing carols and share a drink, no longer limited to just the Twelfth Night but rather all of the winter season. And in present-day Denton, they gather, not in orchards, but amidst an urban forest of spectacularly lit trees at the Courthouse-on-the-Square, weather permitting, all bundled up and ready to participate in the kickoff to the best time of the year.
Thanksgiving will have passed, and Christmas will be just around the corner. The trees on the Historic Courthouse-on-the-Square lawn shimmer from thousands of lights, and the smell of mulled spices and fruit from dozens of wassail stops fill the air as the Denton Holiday Lighting Festival and Wassail Fest begin.
Photo courtesy of DHFA
The historic Courthouse-on-the-Square is the scene for this beloved dual-event festival full of traditions, and people come from near and far to participate. The trees on the lawn are blanketed in twinkling white lights, and with a flip of a switch, the official Denton Christmas tree colors the night.
The Denton Holiday Festival Association (DHFA) produced the Denton Holiday Lighting Festival for the first time back in 1988, with an all-volunteer board planning year-round for the one night of entertainment and fun.
Vice-chair of the DHFA Board, Kate Lynass explains how it all comes together. “The board works on getting sponsorships from businesses and individuals all year long. We work with local non-profit groups to provide activities and food. We work with restaurant professionals to bring in more food, and we work with various community groups, schools, and professional musicians to provide entertainment,” Kate says. “Overall, it’s this sense of ‘we are all in this together’ that makes the event so uniquely Denton.”
The Denton Holiday Lighting Festival has grown in attendance each passing year, with thousands of visitors now filling the lawn and the Square. The event is completely free and made possible through donations and county contributions, which also keep the Courthouse-on-the-Square’s lights twinkling throughout the year.
Wassail Fest came to fruition from Denton’s Main Street Association (DMSA) 15 years ago as a way to bring the ancient tradition downtown. The DMSA is made up of merchants, restaurants and other businesses who hope that people coming for the Lighting Festival or the delicious wassail will then stay to shop and eat and enjoy what the historic Square has to offer.
DMSA member businesses make up some 40 different wassail stops where people sample unique concoctions of the brew. The favorite is chosen by festival-goers casting their ballots. Last year, First People’s Jewelers won best-tasting wassail, with LSA Burger coming in second.
Wassail Fest partners with the Denton Holiday Lighting Festival during the first weekend of December to welcome the season of giving and family, Denton-style. This December will be the 27th annual Denton Holiday Lighting Festival and the 15th annual Wassail Fest.
In the past, the Wassail Fest was held on Friday night in tandem with the Denton Holiday Lighting Festival, but in recent years it has claimed its own additional day on Saturday.
Helma Tarver, a Denton resident and teacher in Lewisville, is one of many who went to the Denton Holiday Lighting Festival when she was attending college in Denton, more than 20 years ago and has continued coming ever since, now a family tradition. They grab a bite to eat, watch the ballet dancers and pile in for their favorite – the horse-drawn carriage ride.
“It’s one of the things that makes Denton Denton and one of the reasons I wanted to come back to Denton when I got married and wanted to start a family,” Helma said. “It’s just one of those family events that is very unique to Denton and wonderful.”
The entertainment found at the Denton Holiday Lighting Festival is what makes the event purely Denton Original, according to DHFA Board chair Kelley Pound.
“There’s a little bit of everything,” Kelley said. “There’s dancing, there’s singing.”
The climax of the Holiday Lighting Festival is the “Denton Holiday Spectacular,” a variety show of Denton musicians and artists coming together. True to Denton, middle school and elementary school choirs and dance groups participate too, leading up to the finale made up of professional dancers and musicians.
“It really is community-based through and through,” Kelley said.
The Denton Holiday Lighting Festival and Wassail Fest are both Denton original opportunities to socialize, meet new friends and see others you haven’t seen in a while. Get some friends together, dance amongst the trees, grab a mug of wassail and celebrate. It’s time to get our Christmas on!