Report by Paula Antolini, November 28, 2021, 10:39AM EDT
On the Friday to Sunday Thanksgiving holiday weekend Bethel residents and other visitors to town got some surprises regarding the yearly holiday celebration tradition in P.T. Barnum Square. Things were a lot different than other years. To start, the Nativity display was not in the Square.
It began with some confusion as to which day the tree lighting would take place, originally posted as November 26th by the Chamber of Commerce CT on their Facebook page, first posted to be on Nov. 26th, with the activities shown below, but then cancelled at the last minute at 12:33PM on November 26th, the day of the event, post also shown below. Yet while the Chamber was claiming it was “unsafe” to have the event due to the bad weather, they were still promoting that people ride on the horse drawn carriage until 5pm.
The original WinterFest event post by the Bethel Chamber of Commerce CT was on Nov. 23rd at 12:22pm but then cancelled at the last minute on the day of the event:
The Bethel Chamber of Commerce CT posted the following activities for Nov. 26th:
View below for the Bethel Chamber of Commerce CT additional post of their explanation and apology as to why they cancelled, posted on November 26th at 4:43pm, saying it was “unsafe for volunteers” due to “winds combined with rain”:
To add to the confusion, the PT Barnum Square tree lights were apparently turned on Friday, making some think that this was the tree lighting. But then tree lights were off on Saturday morning, and turned on again on Saturday at 5:15 to about 5:30 as the “official” lighting took place, and here is where everything changed, and disappointed attendees greatly, according to numerous comments on the Bethel Chamber of Commerce CT Facebook page and other forums too. Attendees were mostly angry at the late cancellation, some stating that family members came from hours away to attend the event on Friday and never saw the late notice.
The comments were mixed but heavily weighing towards mostly complaints. Some of the comments were as follows:
“I’m confused as to why this decision wasn’t made prior to todays start time when. We were out there at 2:30 and saw no postings of the postponement.”
“It was perfect winter fest weather ironically… just a facepalm moment for the chamber.”
“I can understand it based on what it was like as the afternoon went on, just gotta make the call before the event starts lol.”
“Bethel Chamber of Commerce CT please don’t use the excuse of “unsafe” when you didn’t tell anyone basically until start time… and then promoted coming out for the Carriage rides.I wonder how much business was lost today due to this? Such a head scratcher.” … “Safe enough to not tell anyone until the start time… still do carriage rides…. Still have a tree and chair ready to roll in the gazebo…It was busy and just fine downtown right the at start time when you postponed… in fact it was sunny. Just a terrible decision made WAY too late in the game.“
“Totally bummed about this. Was ready to dress for the weather & enjoy the festivities. Actually had planned our day around it.”
“Too bad the nativity setup was also postponed, was supposed to be this morning. It’s always (till now) been part of winterfest.”
A few comments were on a positive note:
“Thank you to everyone who helps make this event happen. My kids had a great time yesterday and they’ll be back again today. Your time and efforts are very much appreciated.”
“Thanks for taking everyone’s safety into consideration.”
More confusion as the Bethel Chamber of Commerce CT was still promoting the carriage on Nov. 26th at 3:12pm after saying it was unsafe to have the event, as shown below:
There ended up being no choir singing Christmas and other holiday tunes, as in years past, or any of the many regular expected activities, but a simple countdown to light the tree and some music after, said people who attended, and Santa “drove by” riding in a fire truck then headed for the Bethel Municipal Center. People did not linger in the square.
Most notably, the Nativity display, the central theme of the Christmas holiday, and that had been in that location for many years, was missing from it’s usual place in front of the tree and was placed down the block at the Bethel United Methodist Church in the driveway. No explanation or previous notice given.
We contacted Tim Martin, who had organized the rebuilding of the new Nativity and placement on the Square in the past, and asked him why this change was made or whose decision it was. He has not responded.
We also asked First Selectman Knickerbocker many questions but he only answered a few, completely avoiding answering the Nativity questions and others, also remaining vague on the other “displays” issue and not saying who made all these decisions. View our questions to him and his one sentence answer below:
“A few questions regarding holiday displays in town ….
1) Can you tell me what lead to the decision to place the Nativity display at the church on Greenwood Ave, this year instead of in P.T. Barnum Square?
2) Was it the cost of the insurance, is it $1500? Or something else?
3) Was Santa at the Municipal this year? Will he be there any other days/nights?
4) Did no one apply for banners to be placed in the Square this year either?
5) Also, the tree did not seem to be lit this morning (Saturday). Is it not lit in the daytime?
6) Will the Menorah or other signs/banners be placed in the Square at a later date and if so, when and what displays or banners are they? Is a ceremony planned and by whom?
7) Was any of this a decision by the Board of Selectmen?
Knickerbocker’s answer was: “The Chamber of Commerce chose to postpone the tree lighting and Santa’s visit to Saturday night due to bad weather on Friday. All the displays are allowed to be placed after the tree lighting.”
Then later when we asked him to answer all the questions, and provide more details about the “displays to be placed” so we could provide the correct information to our readers, he said, “I’m sorry, I can’t be much help. I’m in Washington state with family and have limited access to email. I’ll be happy to speak by phone on Monday when I get back.”
So we will have to wait and see.
All in all, the Town of Bethel has lost a beautiful tradition that many people enjoyed attending through the years and made it part of their holiday celebration. There was no warning of any of the changes beforehand so the residents might have been given a chance to give input on the situation.
We do remember discussions at Board of Selectman meetings a few years ago when they talked about “moving the tree” to the Bethel Municipal gazebo (meaning using an artificial tree) during the time the controversy occurred with the displays. They stated at the time they didn’t do it that year (2019) because they did not have time. So this seemed to be in the planning stages to separate all the “parts” of the P.T. Barnum holiday celebration, the first having already been done by separating Santa to the Municipal lawn. And now the Nativity has been moved, we wait to see how that happened and if it will be permanent.
The big issue was religious displays on pubic property, as the discussion went on in years past about the Nativity placement, despite it being there for years and enjoyed. This was because suddenly a few years ago a few individuals surfaced, in opposition, and fought to have their banners and signs placed next to the Nativity and even contacted an organization who threatened to sue the Town of Bethel over this issue. Only now, oddly enough, the Menorah will be allowed to be displayed along with more displays from others, possibly signs and banners, religious or not, we don’t know yet, Knickerbocker just said there would be some, so how is this possible, and not the Nativity?
Note: Cover photos show this year’s tree in P.T. Barnum Square and the Nativity display placed in the driveway of the Bethel United methodist Church on Greenwood Avenue in downtown Bethel, CT.