Williamstown's Holiday Walk Long Tradition

By Phyllis McGuireSpecial to iBerkshires
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We think this is a photo from past Holiday Walks. Can anyone identify the participants? This year's Holiday Walk is Saturday.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Whether snow flies or the air is so cold people are able to see their breath, spirits will soar at the annual Williamstown Holiday Walk on Saturday, Dec. 1.
For more than 25 years, residents and visitors have come to the center of town to enjoy the family-friendly event.

The origin of the Williamstown Holiday Walk, formerly known as the Christmas Walk, can be traced to Nantucket Island.
Adelaide England, who conceived the idea of having a Christmas Walk in Williamstown, said in an interview, "My daughter lived on Nantucket Island and I was visiting her when they had a Christmas Walk in 1982. It was charming. And when I came back to Williamstown, I said to Rita [Watson] 'Why shouldn't we do it?'"
Watson said the discussion of a winter event came during the late days of summer.  

"I remember that we were standing in my pool one day in August when we decided we should do a Christmas Walk in town," she said.

At that time, Wilson Watson owned a bed and bath store and England owned the Potter's Wheel. And when they went to the other merchants on Water Street with their ideas for a Christmas Walk, they were enthusiastic about participating.

"They saw it as a way of saying thank you for shopping in our stores," said Watson.
But store owners on Spring Street turned down an offer to be included. And the Board of Trade, now the Chamber of Commerce, did not want to support the event, at least monetarily. "The merchants (on Water Street) paid for everything," Watson recalled
There were approximately a dozen businesses on Water Street, including Grundy's Garage, The Mole Hole, Phillips General Store, TG Photo Works, The Mountain Goat and The River House restaurant.

The first Christmas Walk ran from 5 to around 9 p,m. on the first Saturday in December 1983. "Everyone was excited," said England. "It snowed that evening. It was a fairytale (atmosphere)."

"Water Street is Victorian, and merchants were in Victorian dress — the costumes I had borrowed," said Watson, a costume designer at the Williams College Theater and the Williamstown Summer Theatre, now the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

Fresh wreaths, decorated with burgundy bows and ribbons, were hanging on doors of all Water Street stores. Luminaries lined the street. Boy Scouts had helped to create the luminaries, pouring sand in brown paper bags, before candles were placed in them.
On Latham Street, trees were adorned with sparkling lights. "Williams College let us have power from Buildings and Grounds and the field house," Watson recalled.

Another carriage ride at 2005's Holiday Walk; below, Santa and Ephraim Williams in 2007; a float from 2006. Bottom, the walk's gone somewhat to the dogs with the popular Reindog Parade.

A young wife and mother named Phyllis Norton, who lived on Latham Street, would hurry to the dining room when she heard a certain sound during the hours of the Christmas Walk.

"When our daughter Jenny was young she and her friends marched in the Christmas Parade. They would stop at our house and sing carols in front of the dining room window," Norton said. She and her husband now live Proprietors Field.

At the first Christmas Walk, little boys and little girls were eager to ride in the horse-drawn wagon, and when Santa Claus rode down the street in the wagon, their eyes grew wide. (Isn't it nice that some things never change?)
"Parents who took their children home after they saw Santa would return to Water Street and stay until the Christmas Walk was over," said England. "A day or so later, a husband would come to the store to buy a pair of earrings or  something else his wife had admired when they had been in the store during the Christmas Walk "

In the warmth of the stores, people munched on complimentary light refreshments, mostly hot cocoa and cookies and candies.

"We never put out alcoholic beverages," English said, adding that they had tried that in Nantucket, only to have "young men of a certain age" imbibe to a sorry point.
People lingered in some stores, taking pleasure in the entertainment. "A hand-bell choir performed in my store one year, another year I had a bagpiper," said English.
Watson remembers that "a little group of thespians directed by Thurman Hulse did a little play three times: in front of Grandy's Garage, the Town Garage and in a parking lot. Singing groups from Williams College and Mount Greylock High School went from store to store so there was some group performing throughout the Christmas Walk," she said.

The Christmas Walk was held on Water Street for two years.

"On the third year, when we had proved we were not crazy," said Watson, Rudy Goff (late proprietor of Goff's Sports on Spring Street) wanted to have a walk there.  

"So, one year we had two Christmas Walks, one on Spring Street, one on Water Street," she said. "Then we realized that was stupid so we did it together the next year."

Three generations of the Goff family have gone to or participated in Christmas/Holiday Walks.   

"It was very important to my father," said Bruce Goff. "And I would take my daughter Kim to work with me when she was a toddler so she could see Santa Claus and ride in the hay wagon."
The Christmas Walk was televised for the first time when Willinet began operating from the second floor of 38 Spring St.

"We could look out our windows and see people parading in the Christmas Walk, but if we put our cameras out the window, viewers would only see the top of people's heads. It would have been dull!" said Russ Carpenter, founder and former president of WilliNet. "So we ran cables down the stairs and brought a little stage to stand on. Then we introduced people in the parade and had a party on Spring Street. It was a lot of fun! I'm delighted they continue to broadcast from the Holiday Walk."

Tags: holiday event,   tradition,   

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