The Christmas in the Ward kicked off the season on Friday, Dec. 2 with a variety of events and attractions at Catalano Square on the corner of Broadway and Menomonee Street. Hundreds of people showed up to witness the tree lighting.
A crowd circled the tree and Alderman Bauman led a countdown to the lighting of the tree. Everyone cheered as the colorful Christmas lights glowed, starting off the season for many of the bundled-up Milwaukeeans.
The Christmas in the Ward celebration has been going on for 23 years. For 14 of those years, Nancy O’Keefe has been planning it. O’Keefe is the executive director of Historic Third Ward Association. (http://www.historicthirdward.org/) “I am a Christmas nut!” she proclaimed. She said that she does all the planning, and her staff does all the execution.
The event featured live reindeer, Santa, Trinity Irish Dancers, horse drawn carriage rides, and Christmas characters walking around for photo ops.
Bringing people together
The Christmas in the Ward has the reputation of bringing people together. An elderly woman, Shirley Archer, and her husband, Al, came all the way from Houston, Texas to come celebrate the start of the Christmas season in Milwaukee.
Archer said she and her husband flew in on Friday afternoon and they were catching a flight at 4:18 the next day. “We’ve been around the world,” she commented. “We’ve been to Munich three times; that’s why we wanted to come here, to get some German food.”
Victoria Teerlink attended the event with her husband and two kids. “It’s a really nice community event. We come just to see the lighting of the tree and to join in the festivities.”
Sara Meehan, a college student, came to the Christmas in the Ward celebration to find something interesting to do. “I go to Marquette,” she said, “so it gets kind of boring in the winter.”
Karen Dubis is a Lieutenant on the Milwaukee Police Department and the director of the Milwaukee Police Band. They performed on Friday night. The band is the oldest police band in America, and according to Dubis, the Christmas in the Ward “gives the band an opportunity to really be side-by-side with the community.” Dubis also commented that the tree lighting event “kicks off our Christmas season just like it does for all of the community members who come here.”
Kids in the Ward
Christmas in the Ward starts the holiday season for not only the adults in the community, but the kids too. A line with dozens of kids eager to sit on Santa’s lap went all the way to the street from the middle of the park. Meanwhile, two live reindeer were displayed a few feet away from Santa’s giant gingerbread house.
Brandon Chartrand’s aunt and uncle own the reindeer and his family brings them to events like this one every year. He explained a couple of the facts that he tells the children who come to see the reindeer, “they really do fly, and we have to keep them in the pen here so they can’t get a running start. And Rudolph’s nose is only red when he flies during Christmas so you’re never really going to catch him with a red nose.”
O’Keefe said that she shoots for getting kids to come to the event by featuring live reindeer and Santa Claus.
Teerlink, who brought her five-and-a-half-year old and a two-and-a-half-year old, commented that her kids’ favorite thing about the event was probably the cookies.
According to O’Keefe, the cookies were donated by bakeries and the money earned from sales is donated to the Ronald McDonald House.
“There [are] kids…who don’t believe in Christmas when they’re three or four years old,” Chartrand said. “That’s not right, so we [bring the reindeer] for the benefit of all the kids and all the adults that get a kick out of it.”
Fourth District Alderman, Bob Bauman said, “I like to see the children. I like to see the children activities. It’s a sign that people are comfortable.”
Attracting people to the Third Ward
The Third Ward wasn’t always so lively. O’Keefe is the go-to person and planner of many events in the Third Ward including the lighting of the Christmas tree. “For years and years, people never even heard of the Third Ward. You’d have to tell them, ‘we’re the warehouse district in front of Summerfest.’ I mean, no one knew the Third Ward. Now everyone knows [it].”
Bauman said, “I think [the event] brings a very positive focus on downtown Milwaukee….We work together very hard to continue the improvements and the development and revitalization of the Third Ward.” Something that would never have been said 20 years ago, Bauman commented that “the Third Ward is very healthy, very strong and is a shining light for urban living and an urban quality of life in Milwaukee.”
The crisp 33 degree weather didn’t bug the community members who showed up at Catalano Square that night. Dubis said, “We look forward to better weather. This year was fabulous.”
Amy Gelher was at the event with her son, Lucas, 4, her daughter, Lucy, 2, and her husband. With her kids bundled up near her, she commented, “I don’t think it’s that cold for Wisconsin yet.”
Chartrand said, “Luckily it’s been a little warmer this year. We went to the same event last year and I think it was snowing and below 32.”
Archer, the traveler from Texas, thought Milwaukee’s weather was anything but warm. “We don’t have anything warm to wear!” she said. “When it gets down to 30 [in Texas], the whole place goes crazy. It’s a ‘hard freeze’ they call it.”
As for advertising, according to O’Keefe, the best way to get people’s attention is to broadcast commercials on the Christmas stations. But other people at the celebration learned about it through word of mouth or on the Internet.
For a couple attendees, there were multiple advertisements for the event that drew them in. Meehan heard of it from one of her friends who saw it on the Christmas in the Ward Facebook page. Gelhar said that she sought it out online this year because a friend of hers had come a year before.
The event closed with fireworks over the park and musical performances by local choirs. Christmas in the Ward continued the next day and featured similar events to the previous night.