As the sun dipped below the horizon on Saturday night, the Ithaca Commons were illuminated by the light installations of the Winter Lights Festival. Despite the cold of a December night in Ithaca, many residents were still attracted to the festivities just off of Seneca Street.
The festival is organized by the Downtown Ithaca Alliance and runs for two consecutive weekends from Dec. 3 to Dec. 11, with events scheduled on Fridays and Saturdays.
The Lights Festival had its start in 2019, taking over from the Ithaca Ice Festival, which featured ice sculptures rather than light displays. Light installations created by the Beyond Art Collective were spread around the Common and include light projections, an LED christmas tree and Sparky the Unicorn –– a large, multicolored unicorn on wheels with a moveable head.
Luis Cuanda tended the Ice Bar, serving alcoholic drinks from behind a counter made of ice. Cuanda said he has enjoyed working at IDA events for a few years, saying they are good activities to keep Ithacans busy and promote downtown businesses. He also said he liked interacting with the visitors.
“It’s good to connect to people of different cultures,” Cuanda said.
The main event of Saturday night –– the Silent Disco — began at 6 p.m. Rather than blasting music out of speakers, three local DJs pumped tunes through wireless headphones visitors could borrow for free. The headphones can be set to hear any of the DJ’s music at a time. To any passerbys, the commons were filled with a silent crowd of people sporting colorful headphones with each dancing to their own beat.
Daniela Monge, a local resident, enjoyed an IPA from the Ice Bar along with the music. Monge said she had attended the Ithaca Ice Festival previously, but not the Lights Festival.
“The last time I was here the main thing was the ice sculptures,” Monge said. “But I like the concept of the lights.”
As the night grew colder, a hot chocolate bar proved popular as a warm, nonalcoholic alternative to the Ice Bar, particularly among the many families at the festival. Many children drank the hot chocolate and ran around, swinging balloon swords and other balloon sculptures made by Tom Britt, a local balloon artist.
“I’ve been coming here for the past few years,” Britt said. “I make balloons, depends on what the kids want.” He carried multiple balloons under his arm, quickly twisting them into the shapes requested by his young clientele. Britt said he liked the festival, and often attends similar events in downtown Ithaca.
For some attendees, the festival was a complete surprise. Stephen and Kylie Caviness, from Syracuse, sipped beverages as they watched the Silent Disco. Visiting Ithaca for a Mt. Joy concert, they explored the city while waiting for dinner. After encountering two sculpted ice chairs, they walked over and discovered the festival.
“It’s possibly the coolest thing we could have stumbled upon,” Stephen Caviness said.
The programming for the festival changes each day. Friday, Dec. 10 will feature a Lightsaber demonstration by Ithaca Sabers, and on Dec. 11 Santa Claus will make an appearance. The festival also featured the 11th Annual Chowder Cook-Off on Saturday, where Ithaca restaurants compete to make the best chowder and visitors vote for their favorite.