Irena Kaci

Holidays in Central Massachusetts are as warm and dazzling as anywhere. The juxtaposition of small town quaintness alongside big city lights is never more palpable than during the year’s darkest month in December.  Whether you are looking for indoor or outdoor modes of celebration, whether you find your joy in the rabid consumerism of the season, or in its wintery austerity, Worcester County and its many offerings have you well covered.

Right in the middle of downtown, just in front of City Hall is our most postcard worthy sight: the Oval Skating Rink. Unbridled by Covid measures even at the height of 2020, the Worcester Oval has been a steadfast part of the holiday season and beyond. Local parent Justin Duffy loves taking his children there to skate and enjoy the outdoors during the colder season. “The Skating Rink at the City Hall Oval is great. We have been there many times.” Cara Berg Powers, another local parent, is particularly excited that we have finally been able to invest in an ice machine because it makes even this balmy winter a time for enjoying skating. “I feel like Worcester has a bit of an underdog energy, and being able to do this big city thing, like having an ice skating rink in the middle of downtown, really changes things,” Berg-Power says. The Menorah Lighting in Newton Square is another important holiday moment for the Berg-Powers family. “It is nice to have a menorah in Newton Square as a reminder that there are many faiths in our city. The holiday of lights, after the years of pandemic darkness, feels almost like an act of resistance.”

Though not in the city proper, just over its limits in Boylston, awaits the newly renamed New England Botanical Gardens at Tower Hill. I reached out to Tower Hill to learn some more about their winter holiday programming.  Grace Elton, CEO of the gardens was able to speak to one of the season’s most awaited offerings, Night Lights. 

“New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill began displaying outdoor lights seven years ago, and our events have evolved significantly over time. Today’s Night Lights is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for visitors of all ages and backgrounds to create lasting memories while celebrating the winter season. “

Though the museum itself offers a wide range of programming year round, including yoga classes and nature based programming for kids, Night Lights is truly a unique to the gardens event. “ Night Lights immerses visitors in a spectacular world of color and illumination. The displays are always a surprise because no two years are ever the same. Crowd-pleasing features like our rainbow tunnel, model train, and a tree constructed out of living bromeliad plants, typically return each year, but they are always somewhat reimagined. Our horticulture team works hard to craft artful light displays that are creative, fun, and photo worthy.  I’m excited for this year’s show because the event will celebrate different environments on Earth with thousands of twinkling lights. Think meadows, seascapes, mountaintops, and, of course, icy winter wonderlands illuminated. The backdrop of nature and the Garden’s plants make the show even more magical.”

Even though NEBGTH is an outdoor space, the Night Lights event was cancelled for the 2020 Holiday Season, which has only served to reinvigorate its return.  “As a botanic garden, most of our public spaces are outdoors, so it was safe for the Garden to be open to the public during a time when many cultural institutions were forced to shut their doors. We were glad our gardens could offer a sense of relief and an escape into nature during those times. Still, in 2020, we did not host Night Lights. It was a disappointment for us and for so many who make attending Night Lights an annual family tradition. Luckily, we were able to bring this special event back in 2021. Last year, Night Lights brought around 50,000 people to the Garden. This year, we’ve made even more tickets available than ever before, so we hope a record number of visitors will be able to enjoy the spectacle of Night Lights.”

Of course, aside from this particular event, the NEBGTH calendar for the month of December is brimming with lots of other more minor holiday events, including holiday inspired visual arts workshops, wreath making and of course the treasure trove that is the Garden Shop for some holiday shopping.

For the more musically inclined, we can head over to Mechanics Hall, toward a small but mighty nonprofit nestled right next to the historic building, known as Music Worcester. Over a hundred and fifty years old, Music Worcester is famous for bringing Itzhak Perlman to Worcester, and for having no shortage of time-honored traditions. Their holiday offering of Handel’s Messiah is something to which locals look forward every year, as a way of ushering in the holiday season. I spoke with Rae Johnson, who works at Music Worcester, and she explained, “It’s actually one of the only events that includes the Messiah in its entirety. A lot of places will play a portion of the piece whereas our tradition is to include the piece in its entirety. It is a wonderful way to kick off our holiday programming.” 

Ethan Bates, Music Worcester’s Box Office & Marketing Manager is very excited about this year’s rendition. “This is actually our 2nd Messiah since the pandemic restriction, and even last year we had some pretty constricting rules in place. It’s nice to think this will be the year that people will be experiencing the Messiah in the same way that they have for 160 years. We have a great group singing it this year, including Katharine Dain, an excellent Soprano who will be returning for a solo concert in February. I’ve played the whole thing myself, and I look forward to hearing it every year.” Executive Director Adrien Finlay is also very enthusiastic about the event: “We do get people who come to it every year, as a part of their holiday tradition; I really enjoy being able to offer that.”

Not far from Mechanics Hall there lies yet another historic and culturally relevant institution, known as Preservation Worcester. An organization committed to maintaining the integrity of Worcester’s historic architecture, Preservation Worcester hosts Holiday events that incorporate their mission. Now that the dust has settled after their move from the Cedar Street office to their headquarters at the Salisbury House, the Holiday Stroll event is also returning, though it’ll be a bit reimagined this year. 

I spoke with Preservation Worcester’s Executive Director, Deborah Packard about the changes to this year’s event. “We used to have participants decorate their houses for the holidays and then do tours of the homes but the past two years have made that difficult. This year we will feature the front door decorations of various participating businesses and homes. We are calling the event ‘Door To Door’. Then ticket buyers can use our digital booklet and stroll from door to door to view the decorations. We have well over 100 different places participating. And all of our participants will include a couple of sentences explaining their décor.  Over 5000 people have downloaded our booklet so we are expecting an incredible turnout.” When I ask if this will be the first event in the new space, I learn about the James Hogan Fashion Show, another of Preservation Worcester’s December calendar events. “We are actually lucky to have the Hogan Fashion Show, as he is one of Worcester’s premier fashion designers. We will be featuring his collection and inviting a few other vendors in our new space. Ticket buyers will be able to shop some exclusive pieces and really have access to some of the best local designs.” 

There is, of course, one other place where some of the best local vendors cluster for holiday shoppers, and that is the StART at the Station winter market. Taking place in its original setting, Worcester’s majestic Union Station, this year the market will be back with a vengeance. Local artists will set up their tables once more in the great hall on December 4th, from 9-5, inviting anyone looking for well made, and beautiful gifts during this giving season.  I admit this is my favorite event, and favorite iteration of stART, and look forward to it every year. This year in continuation of the 15th year celebration, there will be a few more surprises added, as well as a coffee lounge complete with live music and a few live performances. 

Around here, December is no slouch. There is a real hum of excitement in our growing city only enhanced by the fact that the cold weather hasn’t set in yet, and the sting of our pandemic days has started to fade. I hope whoever you are and wherever you are, that Worcester’s embarrassment of riches brightens this darkest month of the year.