Pulling off the Victorian Christmas in Nevada City
Special to The Union
KNOW & GO
WHAT: Victorian Christmas
WHERE: Nevada City
WHEN: 5 – 9 p.m. Wednesdays, Dec. 13 & 20.
1:30 – 6 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 17.
“This is our signature event and it just gets better,” said Nevada City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathy Whittlesey, referring to the town’s annual Victorian Christmas festival series. “This year, vendors sold out three weeks in advance and usually that happens only two days before the start.”
The event might seem like a logistical nightmare to outsiders, but Whittlesey and her team pull it off seamlessly.
It takes a village
The chamber relies on dozens of volunteers to help stage each of the five Victorian Christmas events. Barricade Monitors ensure vendors access their spots via their assigned gates. Block Captains help vendors set up booths in the correct locations and answer questions.
City crews erect entertainment stages and fire pit seating before each event, and haul away bins of garbage afterwards.
Barbara Tanner has served as the volunteer event coordinator for Victorian Christmas since 1989. She said this year’s 40th anniversary festival began with a bang, with an even larger crowd than the usual 2,000 people who attend each event.
“We maxed out!” she said. “I’ve never seen that many people on the first day of the event. I credit good weather and good publicity.”
Each day or evening offers a variety of entertainment, from cloggers and Scottish dancers to strolling minstrels and stage bands. There are crafters selling everything from pottery and candles to garden art and toys. The food is just as diverse.
“A long time ago, we didn’t have many food vendors and the restaurants were getting slammed,” said Whittlesey. “We started getting more food vendors and the restaurants are still slammed.”
In the beginning, food vendors were mingled among the craft booths on Broad Street. But that created competition with local restaurants, so a food court was established on lower Commercial Street.
“Spectators know where to come to get that food and they also know the restaurants are open,” said Tanner, “so it serves both.”
Near and dear to organizers’ hearts is the Chamber’s Hot Toddy booth, at which volunteers sell the toasty, alcoholic libation.
“We gross close to $23,000 from the hot toddy booth and we net nearly $17,000,” said Whittlesey, adding that the booth was introduced five years ago. “That gives us funding for our chamber budget. And the fun thing is everyone wants to work that booth.”
“Before, we felt lucky if we broke even on Victorian Christmas,” said Tanner.
Another income stream for the Chamber is vendor fees: $400 for each of the 81 craft booths and $450 for the 12 food vendors, who also must be chamber members.
In the early days, all vendors’ items were juried by a committee headed by Tanner.
“As things evolved, we went online and got more high tech,” said Tanner. “We don’t see the products now. We depend on the vendor’s description and keep my fingers crossed that their product is top quality and handcrafted by them.”
Most vendors return year after year. One jeweler has had a booth at Victorian Christmas for two decades.
Booth placement is critical.
“It’s challenging to place vendors in areas that won’t conflict with brick and mortar shops near them,” said Tanner. “I once put booth selling hats in front of a hat store. He hadn’t told me he had hats, and I had to ask him to keep those items under the counter.”
Originally, all the vendors were placed along the curbs on both sides of the street. With that configuration, there was space for 125 booths. These days, there must be a 14-foot fire lane for fire truck access, which limits the number of booth spaces.
That hasn’t prevented the festival from drawing huge crowds, and often, big tour buses.
“We have many tour buses from outside the area, but we never know how many are coming,” said Tanner. “We’ve had as many as 17 and as few as none.”
Because parking near downtown is limited, the Chamber offers a $5 shuttle running continuously between the Rood Government Center and the top of Broad Street. Three shuttle buses run on Sunday afternoons, and two on Wednesday evenings.
Three days before each event, signs warning motorists where not to park are affixed to the pole of every parking meter. The day of each event, Whittlesey personally places another “No Parking” warning on the head of each parking meter.
“I also take out the garbage from the chamber office,” laughed Whittlesey. “But seriously, signage is a big deal. If someone gets towed, it’s a $300 fine.”
Despite plenty of planning, there have been hiccups, including an incident in the late 1980s that was alarming at the time but humorous now.
“Santa was riding in a horse-drawn wagon as it went over a speed bump, and Santa fell out,” said Whittlesey. “I came running into the office yelling, ‘Call 9-1-1, Santa fell off the wagon!’ My volunteers were thinking it was some kind of an Alcoholics Anonymous thing. There were no cell phones back then and it wasn’t funny at the time, but it is now because no one was hurt.”
The festival has been featured in countless national magazines and international tourist websites, including Fodor’s, Resorts & Lodges, and TripAdvisor. The crowds just keep coming.
“When the merchants, restaurants, and vendors are happy and satisfied, that makes it a success,” said Tanner.
“With all that money pouring through town,” said Whittlesey, “I’m sure it has a year-long effect because people love Nevada City.”
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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