My Hometown’s Joyous Community Winter Tradition for Over 100 Years

I’m from a beautiful town in Northern New York State, surrounded by lakes and mountains. It’s located in the Adirondack Park, the largest area of protected forest in the United States. Since 1892, the State of New York has designated this land as a wilderness worthy of protection. And pretty much since 1898 (with some off years) it has held a Winter Carnival to entertain and delight residents and visitors alike.

What sets the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival apart as one of the most prestigious in the nation? So much. So, so, much.

1) The Ice Palace:

This grand structure is built in the traditional way, using blocks of ice cut from one of the lakes in town: Lake Flower. The local prison population has worked on it, local construction companies have volunteered their labor and tools. Quite frankly it is the REAL STAR of the carnival – (apologies to the Dopus Maximus, Bob Seidenstein). It isn’t carnival until the ice palace is standing. You get to walk through its miniature maze, sit in its throne, and see the children’s eyes widen in delight. Every year you can find a penny frozen into the side of a block of ice, and sometimes even a fish!

Photography credit to Mark Kurtz at Mark Kurtz Photography.

2) There’s something for everyone!

Lots of activities abound. The 10 days of Carnival starts and ends with fireworks at the ice palace. In between, there are running races, bike rides, dances, fashion shows, the local Rotary Show, the ladies’ Frying Pan Toss and sporting events! Sporting events include skiing, innertubes and skating races to outdoor volleyball tournaments. There are spaghetti dinners, a library book sale and Woodsmen’s exhibitions. One of the most popular events is number 3.

3) The Winter Carnival Parade.

This parade seems to have a hundred entries. From floats to bands to community groups, there is a wide variety of reasons to cheer. There are clowns and cartoon characters, bagpipes and sirens. There are synchronized dance groups like the canoodlers (a canoe paddler group) and the lawn chair ladies! The latter are so popular that they get to bring up the rear of the parade, ensuring no one leaves until the end marches by. There are boy scouts and school entries. This year there are over 100 kids marching! There are college floats and old geezer entries. There is the Brother of the Bush group with their beards on display. There is candy flying and local T.V. recording it all. The crowd pushes in and nary a kid can see. And FORGET about finding a bathroom. I remember playing trombone in the band. Due to very cold temps freezing our instruments, our band teacher prepared a song that we could play in first position (since the slide of our trombones was frozen in place). I was SO excited to bring my kids to the parade this year. It was the definite highlight!

4) The carnival reflects the community.

There are local high school students who make up the carnival court. They are easy to spot as they wear fur robes for the week and attend as many events as they can. They perform a dance on the opening evening and are among the first floats in the parade. The king and queen of carnival are chosen from the community and on their merit as do-gooders and volunteers. They are people looked up to for volunteer work and altruism. The prince and princess come from the two local colleges in the area, and there are court pages chosen from the local elementary schools. There are so many community events for all ages. It is a heartwarming, coming together, social time during a long, cold dark stage of the year.

5) The carnival button!

It’s five dollars. It is made by the famous Gary Trudeau of Doonesbury cartoon fame. Needless to say these buttons are collectables. This year’s theme is “Roman Around”. The Ice Palace resembles a colosseum. The dates are in Roman Numerals. Zonkers is depicted as a Roman on the button this year. Also, watch out for gladiators as you walk around town.

6. The Spirit.

During these 10 days of light hearted fun, people wish each other “Happy Carnaval!” Everyone’s spirits are lifted. There are two sets of fireworks at the ice castle- one to kick the week off and another to conclude it. There is much laughter and frivolity. This year there was a Blue Bunsapaloozy Bike Ride through town (people wore their underwear/swimwear of choice for this chilly ride). Clowns handed out red noses and families made t-shirts with Roman jokes on them. “What did the Roman say when his wife was eaten by a lion? Wait for it……”Gladiator!” Also, “What do you call a Roman with a cold?”……………… “Julius Sneezer!” What fun!

7. Carnival represents optimism.

It represents inclusion. It represents joy and humor. It is life-sustaining. It is a warm fire during the coldest time of year. It takes the challenges of the area and turns it into a sparkling 10 day ball. It provides laugher, exercise, and lots of memories. I have MANY memories watching the parades, playing in the band, being on the carnival court and sharing the ice palace with my family. I remember doing well in the skating races and loving snow volleyball. I remember freezing my toes and drinking hot chocolate to warm up during the parade. I remember laughing at the funny clowns- there was one pushing a wooden commode with a sign saying “Curbside Service”- and looking forward to my favorite floats. The local schools get a day off. Everyone bundles up and wishes each other “Happy Carnaval!” The excitement and comfort continue. My hometown is truly a wonderful place no matter the season.

Here are some interviews from my family:

My mother observes, “Carnaval is a great deal of fun. The community comes together in a wide variety of ways. You have the book fair which is very special. You have the ice palace which over a hundred volunteers worked on this year. You have wackiness like the “Brothers of the Bush” who all wear long beards. The ladies do the frying pan toss. You have so many activities that bring people together and that’s part of what’s special about it. It celebrates winter.”

My father adds, “I think it’s really special seeing the ice palace. That’s always exciting. And the camaraderie in general. You meet new people. It buoys the community spirit up. “

My daughter Briana also commented on the parade: “I enjoyed the people dressed up in costumes. I liked the candy a little bit, and I liked the noise and I liked when they threw confetti. And it was fun! Superdupersuperduperfun!”

My other daughter Autumn said, “I liked the candy and also I liked the music a lot. I liked that it was so nice and the rhythm! Also, I liked eating the candy and the costumes waving.”

Mark, my husband says, “I think there’s a lot of people. More than I thought would attend.”

There you have it folks. Winter carnival. So popular and engrained a tradition that it even surprised my know-it-all husband! If you have ever gone, please tell me in the comments what you remember/thought about it!

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