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Cornish Christmas — The planning and coordinating of a holiday event with the Grass Valley Downtown Association

Mill and Main Streets in downtown Grass Valley were packed for the first of five Cornish Christmas events.
Photo by Lorraine Jewett |


WHAT: Cornish Christmas

WHERE: Downtown Grass Valley

WHEN: 6 – 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8, 15, & 22

WEBSITE: DowntownGrassValley.com

Time-consuming doesn’t begin to describe what it takes to stage Grass Valley’s Cornish Christmas festivals.

“There are countless meetings and nonstop communication,” said Marni Marshall, executive director of the Grass Valley Downtown Association. “There are a ton of details and a lot of paperwork.”

Planning begins in earnest in September.

Putting it together

There are marketing pieces to write and distribute, and advertising to design and place.

Permit requests for street closures must be submitted to the city. Event coordinator permits are submitted to the county Environmental Health Department because there are food vendors at the events. Grass Valley’s Public Works, Police, and Fire Departments all require permits, consultation, or both.

“We’re continually writing notes about what we can do for next year,” said Marissa Hernandez, the downtown association’s program specialist. “There is a constant critique going on.”

Staff must be hired and volunteers scheduled. Vendor applications must be processed and entertainment booked.

“We strive to provide a full market with a good number of vendors to fill the streets with returning favorites as well as new vendors,” said Marshall. “There are also spaces for non-profit organizations and businesses. Some of the main street shops put out a pop-up shop in front of their stores to draw people’s attention. We want to have a variety of crafters and food that sell good quality, delightful items.”

Organization and placement of the booths is important so there is a natural flow that creates harmony without unnecessary competition.

“For example, you do not want to put too many jewelers together, and you wouldn’t want to place a vendor in front of a store that sells similar items,” said Marshall. “This year we wanted to have space for attendees to eat, so we made areas with tables and chairs.”

Taking it all in

Each year, decisions must be made regarding how many nights the series will run and on which dates. There have been past discussions about holding Cornish Christmas on a single night instead of a weeks-long series.

“We look at attendance, how the festival affects local businesses, and listen to all the feedback to determine if it’s worth it to everyone,” said Marshall.

Attendance was low last year, so Marshall and Hernandez vowed to make this year’s Cornish Christmas bigger and better.

“The first night, we hit it out of the park,” said Hernandez. “There were a ton of people in town and they seemed to enjoy it. We had great entertainment.”

“It looked full, festive, and fabulous,” said Marshall.

But success has its price. There are occasional bumps, bruises, and sore muscles.

“Moving hay bales is not a graceful thing,” said Marshall. “We don’t have the right hay hooks, so we’re waddling around dragging hay bales. We’re moving huge trees in pots and life-size Santas, all without dollies.

“It’s a little comical to watch,” Marshall said, “but nobody went down. People don’t realize how much physical labor goes into the job. It’s not as glamorous as people think. We do whatever we have to do to make the magic happen.”

This year, that included retiring 35-year-old wreaths that looked dated and tired. Large, bright red bows were purchased and now adorn street poles downtown. New LED holiday lights have added to the bright, cheerful ambiance. Merchants put the “wow” factor into their window decorations.

Marshall and Hernandez requested and received permission from landlords of some of the vacant buildings to decorate empty windows. Local artists donated their time and talent.

“It is also our job to facilitate filling those vacancies with businesses,” said Marshall. “Events like Cornish Christmas often attract inquiries about those spaces.”

Organizers say their goal each year is to stay within budget. Actually making money is a wish upon a star.

“Of course, we’d like to make money because we need it to spend on vendors, permits, decorations, and such,” said Marshall. “But the biggest measure of success is an engaged community.

We gauge social media, and see people sharing the event and encouraging friends to come.”

The budget for Cornish Christmas is a bit of a moving target. Revenues include vendor fees, which range from $50 for a single night to $360 for the series, and sponsorships, which range from $100 to $5,000. The City of Grass Valley is a $5,000 sponsor this year.

Major expenses are entertainment, labor, and decorations.

“You know, all the things people want that require money,” said Marshall.

Holiday history

With a nod to the area’s mining heritage, Cornish flags are flying on Mill and Main Street light poles, and new planter boxes include an explanation of what the flags represent.

“We are really focused on bringing the holiday and history back to Cornish Christmas,” said Marshall.

A new, head-in-hole photo stand featuring a Cornish Miner and a Pixie had visitors laughing and snapping photographs. The whimsical new attraction is a creation of Grass Valley Mayor Howard Levine.

“Guests loved it,” said Marshall. “That’s an example of engaging our local artists and creating a fun thing for attendees. We hope to add more of that.”

The inaugural “Holiday Plaza on Mill Street” event, held Saturday, featured the lighting of a city Christmas tree which will become part of future Cornish Christmas events.

Now in its 50th year, Cornish Christmas is one of the longest-running events in Nevada County. Tourists are enticed and welcomed, but organizers say the festival is successful because residents are invested in their local history and community.

“We judge it a success if it is full of life,” said Marshall. “Are the spots full of vendors and interesting spaces? Is the air full of good smells and laughter? Is everything a joy to look at and touch?”

“Money is important but it’s not the overall goal,” said Hernandez. “The goal is to get people to really enjoy themselves.”

Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. To suggest a business news feature, contact her at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.

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