As the sun went down last Friday evening, Madison Street was transformed into fantasyland.
The lamp posts along the street were festooned with pine greens and white lights. An almost life-size manager scene was set up on the sidewalk outside FoundryFP, and the recently installed Hanukkah menorah stood next to a 22-foot-tall balsam from a tree farm in northern Wisconsin, waiting to be lit by Santa.
But what hundreds of kids in wagons and strollers, holding the hands of parents packed into Constitution Court, were waiting for was what happened at 6 o’clock when two motorcycle police officers with sirens blaring escorted a Forest Park Fire Department fire engine chauffeuring Santa (aka Joe Byrnes) to the tree.
The kids chanted “Santa, Santa” right before Mayor Rory Hoskins started the countdown — 10, 9, 8 … and when the crowd shouted “Zero!” Santa flipped the switch and 10,000 white lights twinkled on the tree as the crowd cheered.
Santa moved over to the parking lot between the bank and Pastries by Kay to sign autographs, pose for pictures and listen to what tots want for Christmas, without making any promises.
The Chamber of Commerce hosted the event and their goal, of course, was to promote the many small businesses in town. Evidence that their goal was achieved was caffe De Lucca and Jimmy’s Place packed with diners. An employee of Twisted Cookie said she handed out 1,000 cookies to kids and their parents as they walked the street.
People strolling the sidewalks licked cones from the Brown Cow and sipped to-go coffees from Kribi and Starbucks. Pastries by Kay enjoyed steady business and Todd & Holland Tea Merchants welcomed curious folks checking out their large selection of tea.
Most at the walk didn’t buy anything, but that wasn’t the goal. They had to walk slowly because of the crowds and found themselves peering into storefront windows checking out the businesses inside, some of which they hadn’t noticed before.
What did happen last Friday evening was much more than a business promotion. Not only did the fire department chauffeur Santa to the tree lighting, but two library staff members dressed up as Ghostbusters and one dressed as Shelly the Turtle, the library’s mascot, which the little kids loved.
Businesses got into the holiday spirit. Storm troopers interacted with passersby outside the Brown Insurance Agency; Pippins, dressed in medieval costumes, sang madrigals inside Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore; the fire department gave out glow necklaces; a pop-up group sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” at the corner of Madison and Circle and s’mores were handed out by the park district.
The clip-clop sound of horses’ hooves, as they pulled two wagons filled with about a dozen people each, added a touch of nostalgia to the scene.
Nadeau set up a Christmas tree, flanked by two seats, all sculpted from ice, on the grass in front of Todd & Holland. Strollers took advantage of the novelty for many photo opportunities.
Everyone, except a few 2-year-olds being 2-year-olds, seemed to be in a good mood. Police officers, assisting crowds as they crossed streets, greeted many people by name. For three hours you couldn’t tell liberals from conservatives. Black, white and brown faces, greetings in Spanish, old folks in wheelchairs and using walkers competed for sidewalk space with the crowd.
Hoskins and his family had to stop every 10 feet to respond to residents saying “Happy Holidays.” Some greeted him by his first name.
David Staskowski from Berwyn wore a red sweater that elicited praise from many in the crowd in Constitution Court.
Forest Parkers Ryan and Melissa posed for pictures in front of the tree with their kids, Madeline and Parker, as did Jasper and Lauren with Aria, and Lara with Toya and Toren.
Part of the happy spirit might have come from a sense of restored freedom after so much time cooped up at home because of COVID. Only about 10% of people on the street were wearing masks.
Laurie Kokenes, executive director of the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce, said the tradition of the Holiday Walk began in the early 1980s. “The Holiday Walk,” she explained, “is a ‘goodwill’ event designed to bring folks together from the community and beyond to enjoy some holiday cheer and to showcase Madison Street and Forest Park. It’s a tradition for many, but each year brings some new faces who are discovering Forest Park for the first time.”