Dayton’s Holiday Festival

Photo: Dayton’s Holiday Festival includes activities like horse-drawn carriage rides through downtown

By Tim Smith

Since 1972, the official beginning of the holiday season in the Miami Valley has been the annual Dayton Holiday Festival and Grande Illumination on Courthouse Square. It has become a holiday tradition for many families. This year’s festival will be held on November 24 in downtown Dayton, and it promises something for kids of all ages.

Mrs. Virginia Kettering started the festival so that all children could enjoy the holiday season, regardless of their economic means, with free attractions for the community. The festival kicks off Thanksgiving weekend with the Grande Illumination and the Dayton Children’s Parade Spectacular in Lights. The fun continues throughout December with activities including the Tike’s Shoppe, a family movie series at The Neon, pizza with Santa, the Wintergarden Wonderland Windows at the Schuster Center, noontime entertainment in downtown Dayton’s office buildings, and the Gingerbread Homes for the Holidays Contest. On the night of the Grande Illumination, there will be food vendors, and plenty of photo opportunities for families.

“I think that it’s pretty special that we’re in our 45th year, making our way up to 50,” says Emilee Langenkamp of the Downtown Dayton Partnership. “I think we’re just trying to keep Mrs. Kettering’s dream alive. Everything is free except for the food, and we just want people to come out and have a good time.”

The magic begins at 7:45 p.m. with the illumination of the Christmas tree. Last year, more than 30,000 people jammed Courthouse Square to witness the lighting of more than 100,000 shimmering lights. The tree remains lit throughout the holiday season, and is selected by a committee from entries submitted by the community. Colorado green spruce or blue spruce trees are preferred, but other types of evergreens are considered if they are grand and stately. The ideal tree is approximately 45 to 60 feet tall, and 25 feet wide. The Children’s Parade Spectacular in Lights follows the lighting ceremony.

“The tree lighting is definitely the big attraction,” Langenkamp says. “Everybody crowds around the Christmas tree, then turns 90 degrees to watch the parade.”

Aside from the Grande Illumination and Children’s Parade, one of the more popular attractions is the Tike’s Shoppe. The Tike’s Shoppe is a shopping experience designed exclusively for children. Parents wait outside  while the kids shop with the help of “elves” who assist them in selecting gifts for parents and family that stay within their budgets. After they make their selections, they get help to gift-wrap their purchases. The origins of The Tike’s Shop can be traced back decades to the Rike’s Department Store.

“The Tike’s Shoppe is a kid-sized holiday shopping room where families can come and the kids can pick out low-cost gifts for their families,” Langenkamp says. “It’s open from the Holiday Festival through the end of December.”

Another popular event is the Gingerbread Homes for the Holidays contest. All ages and skill levels are invited to participate in the free contest, and entries will be judged and displayed for public viewing inside the Old Courthouse at Third and Main streets downtown on Friday, November 24, during the Grande Illumination.

“We get about 20 entries per year in the categories of professional, adult amateur, and kids,” Langenkamp says. “The winners are selected by our panel of judges which consists of sponsors, Mayor Nan Whaley, and other prominent members of downtown Dayton.”

The planning process for a festival of this magnitude takes several months, and comes complete with its share of challenges.

“I think that the biggest challenge is the coordination of all of the moving parts,” Langenkamp says. “We have the illumination of the tree, activities at the Kettering Tower, which is filled with the holiday village, and the nighttime lit parade and the carriage rides. There’s a lot of moving parts to coordinate. We really started at the beginning of August, when a lot of our contracts and bookings get started. I work on a team of 3-4 people, but we have volunteers who are on the parade committee, and 12 staff. We coordinate all three groups.”

A new and popular addition last year was bringing in live reindeer for the festival. They will return this year.

“Last year we added the two live reindeer displays, so that was the biggest change,” Langenkamp says. “There’s a reindeer available for petting and one hooked up to a sleigh for pictures.”

Further proof that local businesses have embraced the holiday festival is the sponsoring of noontime entertainment in downtown office buildings.

“Noontime entertainment happens on weekdays through December,” Langenkamp says. “The entertainment consists of everything from local school and professional choirs and quartets, to solo instrumentalists. More and more businesses downtown are having their own holiday entertainment and events.”

The Holiday Festival and community participation validates that downtown Dayton continues to be a destination for arts and entertainment.

“I think that it’s been such a longstanding tradition with the holiday festival, in December people are on board and have gotten used to the activities,” Langenkamp says. “More and more people downtown are getting involved in it. With the influx of new businesses coming in downtown, we’re seeing more participation. I think that anyone would say it’s been bouncing back. We have 90 percent housing capacity downtown and new businesses opening up. I think anyone who works, lives, or just comes downtown would agree that it’s on an upward swing.”

The 2017 Dayton Holiday Festival and Grande Illumination will be held on Nov. 24, 2017 at Courthouse Square, Third and Main St., Dayton. The illumination of the Christmas tree will be at 7:45 p.m. For more information and a complete schedule of events, visit,, or call 937.224.1518.

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at

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