Thousands enjoy annual Christmas festival
Thousands of people, residents and out-of-towners alike, headed to the WDC elementary school Thanksgiving weekend for the Wadena Christmas Festival.
At the annual event, now in its 38th year, kids presented Santa with their Christmas wish lists or got their faces painted, while other revelers enjoyed free carriage rides, entertainment on the Memorial Auditorium stage and checked out wares provided by 96 vendors.
"We're spending all of our money - just about all of it anyway," said Wadena resident Larry Johnson, who makes it an annual tradition to check out the festival with his wife, Dorothea.
By Sunday afternoon, he'd bought a bag for easy baked potatoes, a necklace for his wife and one item that's not negotiable - "you gotta get some fudge," he said. The Johnsons were deliberating a final purchase.
"I don't know about the purse yet," Dorothea Johnson said, examining the item carefully.
Many festival-goers were visiting family in Wadena for Thanksgiving.
During her first-ever festival visit, Mary Jo Barnett said she loved the event's selection of items that are hard to find in retail stores. She bought a few rugs Sunday.
"I enjoy all the homemade goods," Barnett said. "The Barnetts came from St. Paul to buy local."
Like countless others, she couldn't resist the fudge.
Florence Witkop, one of several fudge vendors, sold desserts - and handed out samples - from Northwoods Food Factory out of Frazee. The treats are made from family recipes.
"Fudge sells," said Witkop, a Park Rapids resident. "It's very unusual to have a bad day. We've been here other years and we're glad to come back. It's a nice event."
In addition to fudge, Witkop sells a one-of-a-kind treat: fudge-filled banana bread. "It's addicting," vouched her husband, Richard Witkop.
Another vendor, Detroit Lakes resident LaRae Coleman, sold 21 varieties of a custom prepackaged spice mixes for making dips. After the busy Thanksgiving holiday, she said she's finally ready to dive into the Christmas season. "I've got my tree half up."
For vendor Karen Potratz of Elk River, the festival is a sort of homecoming. She met her husband Leon at Wadena Technical Institute before marrying him 46 years ago.
"You see people you haven't seen in years," said Potratz, who still owns a farm near Hewitt. "I just like the hometown feeling," She sold a hat with false dreadlocks to Sebeka 6th-grader Jayde Petersen, who said she liked that the purple and gold colors didn't just stand for Vikings, but also the Sebeka Trojans.
Over in the Memorial Auditorium, Julia Whynott's piano students performed Christmas pieces. That morning, the Just for Kix dance group took the stage. The Wadena Area Community Band wrapped up the event with some holiday classics.
In the cafeteria, amid other food and beverage options, festival-goers bought the traditional English holiday drink wassail. The cider-like drink was so popular Saturday, it sold out.
The two-day festival is a boon to the local economy, said organizer Shirley Uselman, Wadena Chamber of Commerce executive director.
The vendors from out of town stay in local hotels, fill up with gas and eat at area restaurants, she said. And the people who visit Wadena for the festival, she said, "are also shopping other places."
As she waited to sell custom women's apparel at a corner booth, Rogers, Minn. resident Nikki Johnson said shopping at festivals like the one in Wadena is the best way to spend the most celebrated shopping weekend of the year. "Here you can find something that's not in the big box stores."