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Once Upon a Christmas

Experience traditional holiday celebrations at Heritage Park Historical Village.

By Ally McConnell

Imagine strolling through a quaint village in 1910. The comforting aromas of wood burning and hot apple cider fill the streets while the sound of sleigh bells on a horse-drawn carriage and carollers’ voices ring in the distance. A time well before the hurried pace of crowded malls.

Taking place during the five weekends prior to Christmas is the largest special event held at Heritage Park Historical Village each year. Once Upon a Christmas has had different names over the years but it began in 1983 as a children’s lunch and play. It has since evolved to include activities like a visit from Santa and his reindeer (that children can pet and take photos with),  children’s crafts, wagon rides and carolling from strolling volunteers in turn-of-the-century fashions. Children can also decorate their own gingerbread cookie.

Heritage Park CEO Alida Visbach laughs and says, “I’ve thought about doing a cookie for myself, but I’d be the largest person in the room by far.”

Once again there will be an all-weather skating rink in the town square, as well as Hanukkah activities in the on-site synagogue.
“The whole purpose of [the holidays] is embodied here,” Visbach says. “We focus so much on getting together with family and friends and sharing that magic. A lot of people use this as the traditional beginning of their own holiday celebrations.”

You can get some of your holiday shopping done with shops scattered throughout the park selling antiques, old-fashioned toys, well-crafted kitchenware and handmade crafts. There is even an opportunity for volunteers to help children to secretly buy presents for their parents.
Once Upon A Christmas relies heavily on efforts from its volunteers—to prepare for the annual event the decorations alone can take over 700 hours to set up and take down. A little over 200 volunteers contributed 5,500 hours to the event last year.
Volunteer caroller Agnes Kemp has missed only one year in the past 15 due to an illness. “My Christmas just wasn’t the same that year,” she says.

Part of what makes this event a true step back in time is the commitment of the volunteers to their historic roles. “We’re in 1910. That’s what we’re trying to portray,” Kemp explains. “The ladies have hair and makeup restrictions, we are careful with how people dress, speak and walk. We’re trying hard to make it as if this is our village, and we’ve just gotten together and are singing for our neighbours,” Kemp says, adding that the costumes weigh a stamina-testing 20 pounds.

And of course, there wouldn’t be Christmas without Santa Claus. Seventy-year-old Ed Cwynar, has donned the red-and-white suit more than a few times over the past 12 years. He remembers one special encounter. “I was standing between the Town Hall and the bakery, when a little girl of about four years old spied me. She yelled out ‘Santa’ and came running at me with her arms extended. She hit me with such force that I rolled back in the snow with her in my arms and we both rolled and laughed hysterically.”
Cwynar began volunteering at Heritage Park after his children grew up, before he and his wife had grandchildren. He says it’s the gratitude he sees on the faces of park guests—especially those of the children—that keeps him coming back.
“Once Upon a Christmas is like walking into another time and place. You are no longer in the city, but in a real make believe world. There is something there to satisfy the young and old and those in between,” Cwynar says.
Visit Once Upon a Christmas at Heritage Park Historical Village Saturdays and Sundays, Nov 20 – Dec 19, 9 am – 4 pm, $7 adults, $5 children.

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