With memories of Thanksgiving still vivid and excitement brewing for the fast-approaching holiday season, Riverside decided to kick off festivities with its popular Festival of Lights, and people from all over Southern California headed downtown for shopping and camaraderie on Black Friday. The popularity of the event was apparent as I waited in traffic, trying to find a place to park among the closed-off streets and crowded thoroughfares. I realized that the crowd would be much larger than anticipated. The day was undoubtedly special, as downtown is often deserted any other day of the year, save for the occasional pedestrian eating at the local restaurants or heading to work. After I parked and stepped into the teeming masses packed in the Mission Inn, the immense scale of the event began to sink in.
The air was alive with joyous energy on the thronged streets and in the lobby of the Mission Inn. Outside, children danced and people cheered as the Riverside Community College Marching Band marched in a circuit around the Mission Inn, with a contingent of security trying to part the sea of people browsing the vendors perched along the sidewalks, selling kettle corn, funnel cakes, coffee and various light-up toys. Inside, elderly women with smeared lipstick cackled loudly as they sipped tall margaritas and tried to be heard over the blaring Christmas music and the clinking of glasses.
The centerpiece of the Mission Inn’s decorations was a large Christmas tree in the center of the lobby, dotted with basketball-sized ornaments and a top star that scraped the vaulted ceiling. I wandered for a while, making small talk with the patrons, looking at the decorations and vendor booths, and listening to the music as I tried to get myself into the Christmas spirit.
At 5:15 p.m., things began to pick up the pace inside and outside the Mission Inn. Security ran to and fro, blocking doors and directing patrons who left half-finished drinks and meals at their table and poured out of the exits onto University Avenue. The street was now packed elbow-to-elbow with people, some talking loudly to be heard over the din while others tried to hear the PA system above the noisy surroundings. The mayor, Rusty Bailey, gave a long speech about the importance of the event to the city and thanked the various officials who thronged next to him on a dais. I was able to pick up snippets here and there, but the blaring Christmas music coming from the Mission Inn and the shuffling and breathing of the thousands of people packed in the streets blurred everything into a surrounding cacophony.
Almost on cue, everyone stopped and listened as Mission Inn owner Duane Roberts began a countdown from 10 at 5:25. Everyone held their breath, and there was palpable electricity in the air. As the count reached one, everything froze in a microcosm of silence that was immediately replaced by the illumination of three million lights that snaked along the walls of the downtown buildings and up to the top of the California Tower. A barrage of fireworks erupted from the top of the Mission Inn and there was a brief cheer that was quickly hushed as thousands of attendees reached for phones to capture blurry videos of the spectacle. The firework show lasted for five minutes, as red and blue rockets reached toward the heavens, with each crack echoed by the cheers of the people below. The final crescendo lit up the sky in a bright blue blaze, lit up the streets clear as day and as the smoke drifted westward, a thunderous round of applause and cheers rose from the surrounding crowd as the medley of holiday music resumed playing on the PA speakers.
As soon as the cheers had subsided, the crowd began to thin, as people pushed past one another to hurry into the long lines that stretched from the doors of the downtown businesses and the attractions that had been set up at various locations around the main promenade. There was a small outdoor ice rink, bounce houses and vendors selling carnival-like refreshments, but the lines for each were so long that I decided against waiting. I eventually settled near a stage where Irish band the McKintre Boys played a set that alternated between traditional Irish songs such as “Danny Boy” and Christmas standards in a fast-paced style. The air was still rich with the sugary smell of the kettle corn and funnel cakes, and the crowds of parents and children beamed with excitement despite the long lines and hordes of people.
I have often heard my fellow students criticize Riverside for lacking in culture or engaging events during my time at UCR, and the Festival of Lights is a resounding rebuttal to any of our city’s detractors. People from all over California, many from out of state, gathered in our city on Friday night to witness one of the season’s grandest spectacles. I was disappointed that I did not see more of a UCR presence at the event apart from the occasional sweater or familiar face, as I feel our bagpipe band could have really given the RCC musicians a run for their money.
Still, despite the sheer joyous energy present in the crowd, there were simply too many people present on opening night to make seeing all the events feasible, but I plan to return on a weekday in December to enjoy the remaining sights and sounds, and maybe try my hand at ice skating during a less crowded night. The festival lasts for five weeks, and I challenge anyone who gripes about the lack of activities around Riverside to head downtown and have a look — you’ll be glad you did.