Calistoga embodies the perfect mix of elements for a festive holiday season, in spirit, attitude and backdrop. The weather is crisp but not too cold, it might rain, but not too hard, the leaves have turned red, green and yellow, and the town is dressed up and ready for holiday activities.
At the center of the entire hubbub is this year’s 23rd annual Lighted Tractor Parade, in which 60 or so decked out farm vehicles will begin rolling down Lincoln Avenue at 7 p.m.
The event is really the culmination of a two-day holiday celebration that keeps the town steeped in holiday cheer. There is the Christmas Faire with homemade goodies and so much more (see below), the garland bedecked trolley with free, leisurely travel to and from downtown; carolers, hot chocolate, wine, decorated shops, Santa Claus, all winding up expectations for the parade on Saturday evening.
The Parade has gotten international attention, having been ranked No. 2 on Condé Nast Traveler’s list of “The World’s Most Over-the-Top Christmas Parades,” and USA Today has twice nominated the event for a 10 Best Readers’ Choice Award for Holiday Parades.
For an event that struggled to find a few entrants in 1995, in a town of 5,000, last year the parade drew 16,000 spectators. It’s the single busiest bar and restaurant night, according to city officials.
What accounts for the parade’s growth in popularity?
“It’s so authentic,” said Tenae Stewart, the membership and events manager at the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce. She and a team of mostly volunteers coordinate the parade each year. “Like all our events, they appeal to both locals and visitors.”
Admittedly, Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning said when he first heard about it he questioned the appeal. However, “When you first experience it, whether you’re a kid or an adult, there’s just something magical about it. It’s kitschy, it’s cool, it’s fun, it’s funny, and it has literally taken on a life of its own. “
And because the rest of the world has caught on, this year the city is taking new measures to keep the event safe.
Starting at about 3 p.m. Saturday, barricades will be set up alongside the parade’s route. The barricades are about 3-1/2-feet tall with slats that can be seen through. Spectators will still be able to set up chairs on the sidewalks ahead of time.
“It’s just a matter of public safety,” Stewart said. “The Chamber heard concerns from Calistoga police and fire chiefs, and the public works team. It’s the right thing to do.”
Every year, the parade calls for the entire police force to be on duty, plus an additional 20 in security staff are brought in.
Stewart said there have been no safety incidents in the past, but routine crowd control needs to be maintained. People — including kids — have been known to dart across the street during the parade, and sometimes sit too close to the parade entry. And there are usually a couple of cars that need to get towed.
The question Stewart gets asked most often is what route the parade will take. This year it winds from Stevenson Street down Lincoln Avenue, and then will take a right onto Cedar Street.
Stewart said she usually starts planning for the parade in September, although this year she started in July.
Almost 70 percent of the tractor entries come from Napa County. Another 15 percent come from the surrounding counties; 10 percent from outside the area and this year one is coming from South Lake Tahoe, 187 miles away.
Although there are usually a couple of tractors on the waiting list — this year there are five — Stewart said this is the first year some probably won’t get in.
Each year, it takes about 100 volunteers, and more than a week to transform the Tubbs Building on Oak Street into the Calistoga Christmas Faire.
On Saturday, there will be more than 60 vendors with jewelry, baked goods, packaged candy, leather handbags, wine totes, fiber arts, upcycled yard art, dog cookies, barrel furniture, ceramics, glass art, photography, painting, mixed media and more, said Kelly Barrett Coudert, programs coordinator for the Napa County Fair Association dba Celebrate! Napa Valley.
Among special things to look for this year will be a carpenter from Cobb Mountain, with furniture made from repurposed wood from the fires, and a wreath-making workshop from EV Floral Design.
This is the first year the culinary program at Calistoga High School will be participating. Students will cook breakfast and lunch items such as muffins, soups, and pulled pork sandwiches. Beer, wine, and holiday cocktails will also be available.
A multitude of holiday-related activities will also be offered all day long in the next-door Butler Building. There will be crafting for adults and children, cookie and cupcake decorating, and wreath-making workshops. A Ballet Folkloric will perform and Mexican piñatas will be burst.
“The reception last year was wonderful. We’re trying to pull the entire community together and partner with as many organizations as possible,” Barrett Coudert said.