Seasonal Observances: Downtown Begins Its Annual Holiday Rituals

I doubt anybody's noticed yet. But that's to be expected, considering. After all, at the beginning of the month, all eyes were on the northeast in anticipation of a freakish storm. And almost before the swells began to subside, the entire country was focused on the presidential election. But Nov. 1 quietly signaled the official start of the annual Christmas in the City festival downtown. Don't worry, I live here, and I didn't notice it either. So far, there's not been much to notice. But come this Friday, after the turkey bones have been picked clean and as the battle of Black Friday begins to wane, downtown will start to shine as the Regal Festival of Lights celebration kicks off. The lights that city crews have been busy stringing up for weeks will be flipped on, joined by dozens of rooftop displays, and the season will officially be upon us (no, really this time). It's going to be one of the most festive First Fridays of the year, and another affirmation of downtown as a destination for Knoxvillians.

I think it's going to be a particularly lively season in the heart of the city this year. Over the past several, I've watched as more of the region's residents have made visiting and shopping downtown a Christmas tradition. And this year will offer more variety than most people remember in their lifetime for the center city, as several new retailers eagerly await the annual shopping frenzy leading up to the yule. One of the things downtown has become is a bastion of local shopping, featuring a wider variety of independent, unique options than can be had just about anywhere else in the city on a crisp evening stroll.

In addition to the lighting of the tree on Gay Street, Holidays on Ice will return to Market Square on Friday, and Knoxville will showcase its slapstick ice skating skills for everyone to see. Even those adept at gliding across the frozen glaze will be challenged by negotiating first-timers and used-to-know-hows tripping and toppling their way across the ice. We may not contribute a lot to the winter Olympic team, but what East Tennesseans lack in glacial grace is more than made up for by our comic, diehard enthusiasm for public displays of icy ineptitude. The hijinks begin Friday morning at 10, with a ribbon cutting at 4, and continuing every day (except Christmas) through Jan. 6. Remember, you can save time by filling out the liability waiver available on the event's website (It's really just a, um, formality). Outside of the rink, Market Square's Bill Lyons Pavilion will showcase the annual WDVX Ho-Ho-Hoedown from 5 to 9, and the evening will take on a festive glow amid the tens of thousands of twinkling lights with activities ranging from caroling to marshmallow roasts.

We may be losing the Dogwood Arts Parade next year, but so far, we've still got our Christmas Parade. Downtown denizens will want to mark December 7th on their calendars and pay special attention to where they park that day. One of the most anticipated preliminaries of the parade is the unofficial festivity known by insiders as the Annual Towing of the Cars. It's that special time of the year when "No Parking Anytime" signs will be covered with festive "Temporary No Parking" signs to emphasize the restriction along the parade route. Knoxville's finest will be working hand-in-hand with some of the area's most efficient towing companies and welcoming in the season by relocating the vehicles of anyone who thinks they got a swell parking place right on Gay Street that afternoon. If past years are any indication, this event can begin at practically any time that afternoon. (It's is all part of the fun!) So get there early if you want a good viewing spot. Participants in this pre-parade event should note that while the city's impound lot gleefully accepts guest vehicles 24/7, they will only release vehicles from 8 a.m. to midnight. So if you discover your car missing from Gay after that, you might as well enjoy a nightcap before calling a cab. You'll want it.

I really do expect this season to be a more lively one downtown than we've seen in recent memory. Knoxvillians have genuinely come to like being here. And rather than avoiding it, they bring out-of-town guests down to show it off. The heart of the city has become the premiere setting to enjoy the warmth of heartfelt reunions, to revel in the glow of long-overdue conversations, and to raise a glass in celebration of the holidays. The whole thing will wind down soon enough. Too soon for some, no doubt. But in the meantime, it's going to be a blast. Grab your skates, I know a great place to park right on Gay Street.