Perched at the top of Center Ithaca on The Commons on Saturday, Santa Claus waved heartily at the huge crowd of small children and their accompanying parents before beginning his descent down the multilevel building, repelling down the side. When he finally reached the ground, the children’s cheers greeted him as they swarmed into Center Ithaca for a meet and greet.
Santa’s arrival ushered in the unofficial start to Downtown Ithaca’s annual Winter Festival.
The Winter Festival will begin Friday with the first of a three-round Ice Wars Ice Carving Competition, a Finger Lakes wine gala and the Ithaca Ballet’s performance of “The Nutcracker.” Saturday will include two more ice competitions, the Holiday Artists Market, which is put on with the Community Arts Partnership, and the first Downtown Ithaca Chowder Cook-off.
For Rich Avery, owner and executive chef of Simeon’s on The Commons, this year, the excitement of the Winter Festival will be strictly gustatory.
“I’m very excited for the first chowder competition,” he said. “I hope that Simeon’s will fare well. We have a very good recipe for traditional clam chowder, and then we’re doing something a little different with a Thai corn chowder, “ he said.
Simeon’s is one of 20 restaurants on The Commons that is competing for the title of “best chowder” in a competition that is judged by chowder purchasers. Tickets are available for $10, which covers 10 sampling portions of the different chowders.
Simeon’s will also pay homage to the Winter Festival’s ice carving competition with its own ice creation: an ice luge in the shape of an espresso cup in front of the eatery. He plans to serve Van Gogh double espresso vodka and Van Gogh caramel vodka to customers through this icy cold structure.
Stanley Kolonko, world-renowned ice sculptor and owner of The Ice Farm in Auburn, N.Y., will host Downtown Ithaca’s Ice Wars for the second consecutive year. He said Ithaca’s ice competition is unique in that it has three parts and garners national attention.
“There’s nothing like it anywhere else in upstate New York,” he said. “There’s going to be a national draw of competitors. I really look forward to the carvers coming in from all over the country and other parts of the world. It’s just fun to get together with all of them. It’s great that it’s held in Ithaca because Ithaca’s got a lot of feeling for the arts.”
This year, the Ice Wars begin Friday night with “carve and deliver” ice sculptures, in which sculptors will have three hours to carve their sculptures then deliver them to a downtown location. Part two on Saturday morning is a 20-minute speed carving competition that limits the carver to just a chainsaw and one tool of choice to create a sculpture. Sculptors who survive elimination in round two will move on to compete for prize money in round three. The final round, a four-hour National Ice Carving Association sanctioned competition, rounds out the end of the Ice Wars. The total value of all the prizes comes to $9,000, with the first-place overall winner receiving $4,000, and there are cash prizes for up to ninth place.
Patricia Morin, an Ithaca College junior, attended the Winter Festival last year as a fun break from studying for exams.
“I’m definitely going again this year,” she said. “People should come down and check it out.”
For Ithaca High School sophomore Katarina Dvorak, the Winter Festival means one thing: performing in “The Nutcracker” ballet the with the Ithaca Ballet, which she has been a part of for 12 years, the Ithaca Ballet. This year, her roles in the ballet will include Snow, Chocolate and a demi-soloist waltz.
“I cannot remember a holiday season where I was not dancing in ‘The Nutcracker,’” she said. “’The Nutcracker’ is our most popular show and it has the largest amount of dancers in it.”
The Ithaca Ballet has been preparing for its “Nutcracker” performances since late October and the dancers’ hard work will be showcased when they perform at 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the State Theatre.
The Holiday Artists Market, where 22 local artists will be featured at the Women’s Community Building is also on Saturday. The artists, whose talents run the gamut from photography to sculpture, will be at the event to mingle with the public. Robin Schwartz, program director of the Community Arts Partnership, said the talent featured this year is phenomenal.
“In Tompkins County, we have an amazing array of artists,” she said. “We’re basically a small town in upstate New York, but we have thousands of incredible visual artists up here, so at the Holiday Artists Market, it’s just surprising, the quality of artists that we have.”
Visit Downtown Ithaca’s schedule of events for more information.