Review and photos by Kristen Maiorana

On the cold blustery evening of November 20th, my three roommates and I decided to brave the elements and attend Edmonton’s All Is Bright Festival. Though none of us were particularly excited about the sub-zero weather, we bundled up and ventured out anyways.

I had heard about All Is Bright only a few days prior from my boyfriend Omar, who happened to be bartending for the event, though he wasn’t sure what to expect from it. What I did know about the festival was that it was outdoors, downtown in the Westmount area, and free! Perfect for college students and families looking for an evening of free winter-themed entertainment.

When we arrived at the general area of the festival at 124 St and 108 Ave, I wasn’t expecting to find find parking to be an easy feat. It was around 7 pm and the festival was in full swing, with people bustling all about the streets, trying to find their way to the event, getting back to the warmth of their cars, or, like me, finding parking.  Much to my surprise, however, we were able to snag a spot only a block away from the festival! Despite my initial satisfaction about the ease of finding a parking spot, I was crossing my fingers and toes as we walked away, not only because I was trying to stay warm, but also because I was praying I wouldn’t come back to a ticket on my front windshield.

Along the walk to the festival, I could feel the cold start to seep through my two pairs of pants, sweater, hoodie, and jacket. My attempt at staying warm would be no match for Alberta’s cold winter. I was no longer excited to spend an hour outside in the freezing cold. In fact, I was fully prepared to leave within the next 15 minutes if my friends agreed. About halfway to the festival, however, I could start to hear music and laughter, the sounds of holiday cheer I missed so much. The scent of raging bonfires was the last puzzle piece necessary to lift my spirits and renew my excitement. It felt like magic.

One quick walk later and we were being greeted by a worker who asked us for proof of vaccination before granting us entry. A sea of families, friends, and couples, all bundled up in winter attire were busy walking from vendor to vendor or warming themselves by the campfires that had been lit for those that needed a break from the cold.

The firepits themselves were a sight to see. Most were made of old metal barrels, and seemed (after much debating between my friends and I) to have some form of hieroglyphics carved into the sides to allow heat to escape. The less enticing firepits looked like the standard ones you might find in someone’s backyard. These all lined the streets, perfect for people standing in the long vendor lines, as they radiated heat at least a few feet outwards.

The size of the festival ended up being much bigger than expected. We could now see that all of 124 St had been blocked off from 107 Ave -109 Ave for vendors to set up shop, each boasting different products, activities, or food.

The main attraction, however, was the live music coming from within a large white dome-shaped stage on the tiny chunk of greenery that is Helen Nolan Park. Opening remarks had begun at 4 pm, followed by a host of different musicians, though we were unfortunately only able to catch the last hour of performances. This was nothing to be sad about though, as the musicians we were able to see did not disappoint.

My favourite by far was the Big City Band. This five-piece cover band played high-energy pop songs from all eras, a few of my favourites they played being “Funkytown” by Lipps Inc, “Stayin’ Alive” by The Bee Gees, and “Shut Up And Dance” by Walk The Moon. They definitely knew what kind of songs would please the crowd, as many people (including us) were singing along and dancing. It was especially good to have music to move around and dance to while standing in line for vendors when there were no firepits nearby. My only disappointment was that they played no holiday-themed music. As they were performing at a winter festival, you would think they might want to include some holiday favourites. Despite this, they were still a great addition to the All Is Bright Festival.

I have little to no self-control when it comes to sweets, so I had to get a bag of delicious, piping hot mini donuts to snack on while walking around. I’ve also eaten at Smoke & Fire BBQ before, my favourite menu items being the pulled pork or Montreal smoked meat sandwich. Lucky for all of the food truck goers, a tent was set up with heaters and picnic tables, so those quick enough to grab a seat within could defrost for a bit. Carolers were also singing just outside the tent for those having a bite to eat in The Lot’s outdoor seating area.

We were also able to catch Chariz Faulmino and Jameela McNeil, also known as C.J., from the SkirtsAfire Festival (a theatre and multidisciplinary arts organization that features the work of women and non-binary artists). Unfortunately, my friends and I were not particularly impressed or interested in the songs they chose to perform. Perhaps I didn’t give them enough attention to really be interested in their music, since they were playing when we first arrived, but they weren’t particularly captivating. Their voices were quite soft, and the songs they played weren’t anywhere near as high energy as those of the Big City Band, nor could I recognize any of them. Though they definitely weren’t the star of the show, they made for some good background noise while we were walking the streets.

Included in the All Is Bright Festival was an attraction known as ‘The Lot’, something I’d actually been to before. Located on the corner of 123 St and 107 Ave, food trucks, other vendors, and retail pop-ups frequently set up shop here. The list of vendors changes weekly, and during the All Is Bright Festival they included Gyspy Mini Donuts, Dick’s Tater Ship, Smoke & Fire BBQ, Maestro’s Empanada, and VeganGo.

A variety of great vendors also lined the streets. My personal favourite was the maple taffy tent. Customers were invited to watch workers drizzle the syrup over snow and ice, before being instructed on how to roll up the taffy themselves on a popsicle stick. This delicious treat was only $4 for one stick or $8 for two.

My friends and I all got one and it was definitely worth the money. Not only was the experience interactive and fun, but the delicious (though very sticky) treat was also a perfect reward for standing in the long line. I felt bad for the poor parents that had to deal with extremely sticky children after eating this sweet treat!

Though I didn’t try it out for myself, the Foam Fighters tent seemed like a ton of fun as well. Here customers used what looked like a nerf gun to shoot at holes in the backdrop of the tent to win different prizes. Many of the kids who obviously play way too many violent video games seemed to be having the time of their lives.

A ‘Fairy Godmother’s Princess’ could also be seen walking around the festival, towering over us on stilts and waving at those walking by. She wore a long white dress with fairy lights that lined the edges, had big light blue wings, carried a wand, and sported a light blue bedazzled mask to complete her look.

She was joined by what can only be described as some kind of abominable snowman, walking around and dancing to the music. He was dressed head to toe in white, with every part of him except his face and boots covered in white spike-looking things, almost like they were meant to be icicles.

He also wore a white, skull-like mask that seemed to freak out some of the children. Unfortunately, kids were avoiding him, though he seemed very friendly and ready to mingle to me. His dance moves were a perfect distraction from the cold for those standing in line or passing by.

At the end of the street, towards 108 Ave, Santa Clause and his “reindeer” had landed. Though these reindeer were actually just two giant Clydesdale horses, the magic of Santa Clause was still prevalent as ever with the jolly bearded man clad in a bright red suit and hat, sitting in his giant red sleigh.

Wanting to relive our childhood years, my roommates and I stood patiently in line to take a photo with Santa. He sat in the back seat of the giant red sleigh, while a man wearing all black and a cowboy hat sat in the front, presumably watching the horses and ensuring they didn’t get spooked by all the children running about. Unfortunately, he was less than jolly and didn’t say a whole lot, but I don’t blame him. After sitting outside in the freezing cold weather for a few hours, I’m sure I wouldn’t be the most cheerful either.

A worker controlled the queue of people and took photos for everyone wanting to visit Santa. When it was finally our turn, we hurried over to Santa so the worker could take our photo. In contrast to his not-so-enjoyable companion minding the horses, Santa Clause was welcoming and kind to us. He asked how we were, and after laughing at our collective reply of “cold,” told us he was too, despite being all the way from the North Pole. Even though we were only able to stand in front of his sleigh and have a short conversation before snapping a few photos and moving on, it was a great reminder of my childhood and the magic of Christmastime.

To end the night, my friends and I went to visit Omar at the Beverage Gardens, where they were serving mulled wine and hot chocolate. Lucky for us, he was able to score us some free hot chocolates while we watched the Big City Band close the festival.

The mulled wine was also a perfect nightcap, made with anise, peppercorn, cloves, and orange slices, though I only had a sip of my roommate’s, since I was driving. The regular hot chocolate was $2, while spiked hot chocolate and the mulled wine were $6 each, relatively affordable if you only had one or two, despite the cups being a bit on the smaller side.

I wished I could’ve had one to myself though, as I’m sure it would’ve warmed me up nicely. Instead, I stuck close by to the many firepits along the streets.

Overall, the festival was an overwhelmingly enjoyable and magical experience, though I wish it was going on for more than just November 20th. Regardless, this winter festival was the perfect start to our holiday season, as I’m sure it was for everyone else who attended!