Christmas came to Henley last Friday night with the return of the beloved annual Christmas Festival. Marking the beginning of the festive season, the event drew thousands of locals to the town, packing the streets with pedestrians of all ages. The very merry evening was a spectacle of singing, shopping, and a surprising appearance from Santa!
As is a Christmas Festival tradition, the evening began with a Lantern Parade. Children from local schools marched from the River & Rowing Museum to Friday St, lighting up the town with their hand-decorated lanterns. Although also joined by Henley Mayor, Glen Lambert, and the Town Crier, there were some particularly special guests leading the procession: three real live reindeer. The parade ended in Friday Street, where the troupe were greeted with Hot Gossip hot chocolates and a snow machine. The reindeer weren’t neglected a treat, either; Father Christmas’ sleigh-pulling companions no doubt went home with full bellies after children flocked to feed them throughout the night.
It wouldn’t be a Christmas Festival without an appearance from the man himself. Santa stayed cosy in his Kenton Theatre grotto, created by Karen Moberly with the help of Acorn Theatre Group and the Vintage Look. Children could meet Santa whilst parents enjoyed a glass of mulled wine, and after sharing their Christmas wish lists, each young visitor left with a gift for being so good. There was added entertainment for the queuing families thanks to Asquith’s teddy bear shop, HAODS, the River & Rowing Museum and the Dick Whittington panto stars. The New Street teddy bear shop donated two large toys – a unicorn and a reindeer – for children to take pictures with as they waited, whilst the River & Rowing museum were on hand doing face painting. The panto stars also made an appearance, accompanied by carollers from HAODS.
The Town Hall had a new feature for 2018: Red Fox Photography’s Wild Wood, which made a magical setting for some story-telling. Meanwhile, the River & Rowing Museum hosted free arts and crafts in the Council Chamber next door.
As ever, there were plenty of food and shopping opportunities with Duke St and Market Place lined with small independent vendors. Laurence Menswear entertained the shoppers with a magician and Helen & Douglas ran a lucky dip. From well known favourites, such as the Machin’s barbecue stand, to new local businesses like Greenbox’s veggie burgers and Jesseco Prosecco’s pancake serving horse box, there was no reason to go hungry. Shops around the town also stayed open late, with many offering drinks, mince pies and special offers for the occasion.
The usual array of rides in Hart St were smaller this year, focusing on traditional vintage fairground stalls. The decision was made after feedback that the event had become too commercialised, although some were disappointed to see the number of rides reduced. However, the Henley fire engine returned by popular demand, and there were still plenty of activities to keep people entertained.
Of course, the evening’s main event was the turning on of the Christmas tree lights. As crowds gathered around the tree (sponsored by Invesco), there was an unexpected appearance from Father Christmas, waving down from the Town Hall roof. The tree lights were then turned on by the winner of the Mayor’s Christmas Card competition, 7 year old Freddy Burton, with the help of the Mayor, Mr Toad, and some of the Dick Whittington stars.
Henley Mayor, Councillor Glen Lambert said, “Welcome to the Henley Christmas Festival, one of the highlights of the Henley calendar that my family and I look forward to every year. This event is being organised by Henley Town Council who are very grateful to Invesco for sponsoring our beautiful Christmas Tree and to the River & Rowing Museum, Hot Gossip, Higgs Printing, Vintage Antiques, Brakspear Brewery, Thames Valley Police, St Johns Ambulance, the Henley Business Partnership, Breathe Creative, The Creative Duck and all the retailers for their help and support. I’d also like to thank our Town Council staff and all the marshalls around the town for their tireless efforts.”
The choirs from D:two, Gillotts School and Rupert House School then led the town in a selection of carols, accompanied by the Woodley Concert Band. Carols included traditional favourites such as Silent Night, Away in Manager and We Three Kings of Orient Are.
Though smaller than previous years, the 2018 Christmas Festival was a spectacular way to kick off the advent period, putting the town into a thoroughly festive spirit.