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Festival of Light shines through the enchanted forest

Story and photos by Olivia Timm
Giant art installations, a sea of lights and unseasonably warm temperatures cast magic over Picton during the Firelight Lantern Festival’s 10th celebration.

For the first time, the festival expanded to two evenings of art and music Nov. 4 and 5 under the theme ‘The Enchanted Forest’ curated by the Department of Illumination.

“We had 900 people over two nights. This is our highest attendance yet as we normally only do one night, but this year we added an adults-only night on the Friday, which was a big hit! We hope to make this a new part of our annual celebration,” said Krista Dalby, Artistic Director for the Department of Illumination.

Associate artist Nella Casson, echoed the excitement.

“The festival has grown from 300 people on the top floor of the old fire hall 10 years ago to close to 1,000 now. Not bad for a town of 5,000 full year residents.”

Friday night, during the 19+ festivities, folks poured into The Crystal Palace to enjoy live music from Kingston’s experimental folkestra The Gertrudes. Saturday saw the stylings of Toronto’s hip-hop brass band Bangerz Brass, after folks of all ages made their way down Picton Main Street from Benson Park in the beloved lantern parade.

Both evenings featured an eclectic array of performances from multi-format puppet masters Imagicario, shadow puppetry by Birdbone Theatre, plus Peterborough circus performers, and festival favourites, Trellis Arts. DJ Ombudsman kept the dance floor moving, and the Kaleidoscope food truck kept everyone fed.

The Firelight Lantern Festival is known for its epic illuminated art installations. Dalby and Casson, with artists Chrissy Poitras, Tim Snyder and Kyle Topping responded to the year’s theme, including animating the site with giant lantern puppets.

“There were so many wonderful aspects to the festival this year, but I love how after 10 years of producing this festival that people know that this is where they can let their freak flag fly,” Dalby said. “People can dress up in costumes, bring puppets, wear that fancy ball gown at the back of their closet. It’s just pure freedom of creative expression.”

Casson said this year, she was lucky to work with Dalby along with Tim Snyder on the giant light up bear puppet “Bearzerker.”

“We started working on him last spring. At 13-feet tall, he’s the biggest puppet we’ve ever attempted. I’ve been learning about the tradition of puppetry and Krista is a wealth of knowledge of puppet construction, history and functionality. Tim was the puppeteer and he really brought him to life – so many giant high fives and oversized bear hugs,” Casson reflected.

Dalby said she is happy with how the festival turned out, after a challenging couple of years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was so wonderful to come back in such a big way. Although we continue to work with our core group of local artists, we also brought in an absolutely incredible array of performing artists, which gave it a real carnival-like atmosphere.”

Dalby said the team scaled the festival up this year, to make it inclusive for everyone. After years of parents saying ‘If our kids weren’t so tired, we’d love to stay longer,’ and noticing younger adults coming to the festival later in the evening, the organizers were happy they presented the adults-only offering.

Casson said the group is lucky to have the Crystal Palace and Picton Fairgrounds, so there is room to continue growing in a safe way, while also adding the parade and performances in Benson Park – accessible for all and a free part of the festival.

“It’s been really wonderful to reflect on the past 10 years and how the festival has grown. What started out as a very modest event in 2013 has grown to become a major part of our community’s culture. We’ve tried to mix it up over the years to keep things interesting, and I think the festival will continue to evolve as we do,” said Dalby. “Every year, the Sunday after the festival we begin planning for the next year. It’s going to continue to grow and build.”

Casson added her thanks to the event sponsors, volunteers and community.

The Firelight Lantern Festival draws inspiration from traditions of many lantern festivals throughout the world which use light as a symbol to bring people together.

The timing of the festival in November coincides with the European tradition of Martinmas which originated in France in honour of St. Martin, a friend of children and patron of the poor. The festival acts as a beacon to encourage residents, both adults and children, to conjure their own light, bringing it into their hearts and homes to sustain them through the darkness.

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