On December 7th, Frost Fest was hosted in downtown Durham by the town’s Parks and Recreation who had previously hosted Light Up Durham, the original holiday event in town. The intention of the change was to make the event more inclusive for the community by not having the event focused specifically on Christmas. The change this year has been followed by feedback from the community.
The town council requested a committee to take over the decisions of an alternative event and brainstorm ideas. This committee was called the Winter Celebration Workers Group, made up of five people. This committee came up with the idea of Frost Fest which is a celebration that brings the community together to celebrate the holiday season. It had similar events to the tree lighting from previous years like having s’mores and local vendors. The event started at 6pm and ended at 8pm, but the event took a year to plan.
The idea for an alternative holiday celebration started when members of the Durham Jewish community had requested in 2018 that the town should place an 8-foot menorah next to the Christmas tree in downtown Durham. The request was ultimately denied because it would be a religious symbol on town property.
The town was also concerned about possible vandalism on the menorah and the town found an alternative place for the menorah. “It gave some of the community an opportunity to voice their concerns over the event and why we allow the Christmas tree lighting to take place but not a menorah to be displayed on town property,” said Rachel Gasowski, the Parks and Recreation Director of Durham.
The discussion on Frost Fest was also brought up by the town’s human rights commision and they decided to have town meetings regarding this event to inform and get feedback from residents for an alternative event. “After going to the town council meetings and hearing why they couldn’t put up a menorah and why they couldn’t celebrate other holidays, I understood. I think they’re doing a pretty good job [at Frost Fest]. There’s nothing specifically referencing Christmas or specifically referencing Santa, besides him being here. I think they’re doing the best that they can,” said Emily Clegg, a University of New Hampshire (UNH) student who attended Frost Fest.
In past years, Santa was brought in on a firetruck, but this year, he was already at the event with no grand entrance so that Frost Fest wouldn’t specifically highlight Christmas. The organizers also got rid of the countdown to the tree lighting, and instead, the tree was lit before the event started. “With some of those key elements, the [Winter Celebration Working Group] felt as though that, not taking them away, but making them not such of a focal point of the event made it more inclusive for folks who don’t necessarily celebrate Christmas to still participate,” said Gasowski.
The activities that took place at Frost Fest included roasting marshmallows for s’mores, ice sculpting, cookie decorating, a photo booth, and more activities that were run by the community. Clegg said, “everyone seemed to be having a good time, and I don’t feel like there’s any difference in what [Light Up Durham] would have been in years past.”
The group that developed Frost Fest worked hard to make this event inclusive. Residents like Jackie Rucker who attended Frost Fest, said that she understood the changes because the town was trying to open the event up to everyone.
“I think that the [Winter Celebration Working Group] knew that change is hard and that the community would have a hard time with the changes, and it will take some time should these changes stick, but I don’t think anyone anticipated that it would get so controversial, to be honest,” said Gasowski. She continued to say that the comments and responses, whether they were positive or negative for Frost Fest, were respectful. She did find that, “a lot of the really negative, hurtful comments, came from those primarily outside of this community.”
John Kraus is a resident of Durham and had more of a negative response to Frost Fest calling it “Frost Farce.” He also called the Winter Celebration Workers Group’s handling of Frost Fest a “colossal failure of imagination” and a “backdoor endorsement of a bad idea.” Kraus also said that this event could “ignite a firestorm of unhappiness among Durham citizens at large,” according to The New Hampshire’s article, “Durham Residents Put ‘Frost Fest’ on Thin Ice.”
The future of Frost Fest will be determined by the feedback from the community. Gasowski said, “it’s a working progress and [Frost Fest is] always changing, as the event has done over the years, as it always has.”