As dusk settled over Neahwa Park, Carol Mandigo wasn’t sure what to expect when she flipped the switches to turn on the Festival of Lights.
What she saw were cars lined up as far as Main and River streets, waiting their turns to be driven around the 37 displays of holiday lights and decorations set up around the park.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Mandigo said. “I had no idea it was going to be as popular as it was.”
The event – it began last Friday, Dec. 18, and continues every night from dusk until 10 p.m. through Sunday, Jan. 3 – was a spin-off from the traditional First Night celebration, which, along with the Hometown Fourth of July, was cancelled due to COVID-19.
“Everyone on the board was really sad that we had to cancel,” she said. “We got together to decide if we should do something for New Year’s or just bag the whole year. No one would blame us if we didn’t put on an event.”
But Mandigo had seen the Lights on the Lake event in Liverpool, the Syracuse suburb, and although it cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to have it professionally put together, she pitched the board an idea: “What if we asked the community to put up displays?”
The board agreed, but she still wasn’t sure if the community at large would embrace the idea. “Then it would be lame, and that would be terrible for us,” she said.
She reached out to Ben Guenther at Five Star Subaru first to see if he would sponsor a display. “He was all about it,” she said. “And once I knew he was backing us, I knew we had something special.”
The Otsego County Chamber of Commerce sent out a call for displays in its newsletter, and soon, the emails started pouring in. “I was shocked,” she said. “I really thought we were going to have to do it all by ourselves.”
Several of the displays were dedicated to John Hayen, who in 2017 hung 23,500 lights in his home and yard on Tilly Avenue, surpassing the record set by Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” He passed away in November.
Bassett Healthcare employees’ display paid tribute to front-line workers, while the Brooks’ BBQ display featured Santa surrounded by chickens.
There were logistical challenges to overcome, including how to power each display without tripping circuits. “I’ve been living out in the cold from morning until night,” said Mandigo. “We had to figure out how to power everybody, how to run all these cords and how to protect the displays.”
And then came the snow.
Overnight snow on Thursday, Dec. 17, dumped 29 inches of powder on the city, burying all but the tallest displays. “People were worried that it wouldn’t work,” she said. “But no one ever said to postpone it.”
Instead, the groups came out to shovel out their displays. “It was a miracle,” she said. “We were still tripping circuits, but by 3:30 p.m. on Friday, we were ready to go.”
The event opened at dusk with entertainment, including Cosmic Karma Fire, Mike the Juggler and Santa Claus.
“Santa went to each car and asked the kids’ names and what they wanted for Christmas,” she said. “And the kids were so excited to see him.”
Even Mandigo donned a set of light-up wings to welcome visitors over the weekend. “I had so much fun seeing the kids faces light up,” she said. “That’s what First Night is all about.”
Editor’s Note: The New York Sun’s Francis Pharcellus Church penned this famous response to 8-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon in 1897.
We take pleasure in answering thus prominently the communication below, expressing at the same time our great gratification that its faithful author is numbered among the friends of The Sun:
I am 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, “If you see it in The Sun, it’s so.” Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
115 West Ninety Fifth St.
Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours, man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.
We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The external light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies. You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.
You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real?
Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.
No Santa Claus! Thank God! He lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.
Even Santa Claus sometimes needs a little work done.
For the past five years, he’s been a Christmas Time treat at the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, but for many years after Bresee’s Department Store closed down in the 1990s, he was out of the public eye.
“He had been in our warehouse, and we rescued him,” said Elaine Bresee, Milford Center, whose husband Marc was one of the last family members to manage the namesake downtown Oneonta department store.
“We had him outside in our sleigh every year,” said Elaine, but as the years went by, the wintry weather took its toll on the 1930s fixture, which was a centerpiece of the department store’s holiday decorations for decades.
“He was starting to get pretty trashed,” she said. “His fingers had broken off, and he was starting to fade.”
So in 2013, the couple had him repaired, and in 2015 donated the figure to the Greater Oneonta Historical Society, where it has once again become part of downtown shoppers’ Christmas expectations.
The restoration was done by Marjean McCaslin-Doyle, the costume shop manager in SUNY Oneonta’s Theatre Department, and it was a challenge.
“Someone had tried to curl his beard at one point,” she said. “But it’s synthetic hair, so it had gotten singed.”
She bought him a new mustache and gently cleaned and restored the original beard.
His hand-tied wig also needed restoration, and worse, no longer hid the holes in his head. “I had to fill, paint and seal the scalp,” she said.
His lips were similarly deteriorated, with holes between the beard and mustache.
“The face was in the worst condition,” she said. “The rose in his cheeks had been rubbed off, and there was a lot of effort in trying to match the original colors.”
She ordered a set of plaster mannequin hands, but also made a cast of one hand. It came out so well, she doesn’t remember which hand is bought and which one she made.
“It took two years, but she restored him,” said Elaine. “She was so careful in ordering just the right hands so that they matched the rest of him.”
His costume – one of the two original Bresee’s Santa suits – was restored by Kathleen Moore, one of Marjean’s colleagues in SUNY’s costume department.
“The collar and the cuffs are real rabbit fur,” she said. “And the suit is very heavy wool, not like the material they use now. It’s amazingly made – it wouldn’t have lasted this long otherwise.”
Once restored, the Bresees donated the plaster Santa – as well as the Santa Chair and the mailbox – to GOHS in 2015.
“Letters in the mailbox were always answered for the longest time,” said Marc Bresee. “There would be about 75-100 of them, but then when people started really coming, we couldn’t answer them all.”
Instead, Marc said, each visiting child was given a candy cane and a coloring book, with a promise that Santa would read the letter.
Even now, a letter still shows up on occasion. “This one says, ‘I would like robots, please!’” said Bob Brzozowski, GOHS executive director. “But I don’t know who sent it!”
And Santa can’t sit in an ordinary chair, but instead, sits on the Bresee’s Santa Chair, which was made by the store’s in-house carpenters for the Jolly Old Elf to meet with visitors.
“We toyed with donating these for about five years,” she said. “I always have trouble parting with things from the store.”
But they haven’t parted with all of the store’s Santa ephemera yet.
Bresee’s kept two suits, as well as a wig and beard on hand, so that one could be sent for cleaning while the other was being worn – including by Bresee’s most famous Santa, Clark Chaplin.
“Of course, Clark always had his own beard,” she said.
Marc wore the suit to dress up for his children when they were kids, and for his father, Phillip, when he was at the Thanksgiving Home.
“They were having cocktail hour one Thursday, and in he came in the full suit!” he said. “They were all very happy to see me.
In 2019, the Bresee’s loaned the second suit for Orpheus Theatre’s production of “Elf.”
Santa’s sleigh – also a decoration from Bresee’s – has returned to the couple’s porch, with two former store mannequins, a boy and a girl, dressed in cozy red pajamas as they wave to passerbys.
And a new Santa is there too. “He’s not as beautiful as the other one,” said Elaine. “But another one will come along.”
Ariella Lapre, 5, prepares to share her wish list with Santa Claus, who paid his annual visit this afternoon to the Schenevus Fire Department’s Christmas Party at the fire hall, organized by the department’s auxiliary. She’s the daughter of Steve and Sandy Lapre, Westford. As many as 100 youngsters were expected including (inset, right) Jade Jaquish, 1, who was excited about meeting Santa, but then wasn’t too sure when she saw the Big Guy in his sled. She’s the daughter of Liam and Samantha Jaquish, Schenevus. The annual holiday highlight features food and Christmas cookies, and the Schenevus Central Dragon Tones were scheduled to sing at 4, according to Auxiliary Vice President Christina Snyder, one of the organizers. (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com)
Santa in driven into Oneonta by Jay Chase of Chase-n-Dreams Farm, Oneonta, and his sister horses Molly and Dolly during this evening’s Santa Parade in downtown Oneonta. At right, Andrea Thies, Oneonta, walks her dog Sanabel along the parade route, wishing onlookers Merry Christmas. Temperatures in the upper teens thinned some of the crowd, but didn’t keep hundreds from turning out to welcome St. Nick. After visiting with Santa, families could walk around downtown enjoying cider, cocoa, alpacas and carriage rides as they awaited the Tree Lighting ceremony in Muller Plaza. (Ian Austin, James Cummings/AllOTSEGO.com)
ONEONTA – The end of the Christmas season will mark the end of an era for a Southside Mall mainstay.
For over two decades, Vera Stewart, aka Mrs. Claus, has been volunteering for the Salvation Army by ringing bells and holding doors at her station outside of JCPenney, spreading cheer to holiday shoppers. Dressed in red velvet with white trim, the Southside Mrs. Claus has become a mainstay of the Christmas season to many visitors young and old.
“When they first asked me to be a bell ringer for the Salvation Army, I decided to try it.” said Stewart, “I began doing it only on weekends, then I went to five days a week.”
Main Street was a flurry of activity as holiday revelers hit the streets to attend the annual Christmas Tree lighting this evening in Muller Plaza. Applause and cheers filed the air after a countdown by Mayor Gary Herzig, Town Supervisor Bob Wood and Santa Claus. Afterward, Santa, seen above giving a high-five to Oneonta’s Avalon Hermann and her parents Brian and Loren, met with children in his holiday house to discuss their wish lists. Dancers Chase Vining and Sariha Vestefeld, right, and other members of the Fokine Ballet, could be seen twirling in windows throughout downtown promoting this weekend’s presentation of “The Nutcracker.” While children from local schools searched for their ornaments on the tree, local organizations served refreshments, sang carols, gave horse-drawn carriage rides, and gave out hand warmers.(Ian Austin/AllOTSEGO.com)
Emcee “Big Chuck” D’Imperio, right, stands high above a packed crowd that gathered on Main Street this morning to welcome Santa back to Oneonta with big cheers and happy smiles during the annual Santa Parade. Santa will spend the afternoon in his cottage in Muller Plaza, hearing good boys and girls’ Christmas wishes. And once you’ve seen Santa, you can go down to Foothills to see the Gingerbread Jubilee and join in the cookie fun. At right, Brittany Boyke, Davenport, helps her little penguin – daughter Alexis Merwin – decorate a delicious holiday treat. The fun at Foothills continues until 3 p.m.