A Fest to Celebrate Winter, then Hope for Spring

Feb 26, 2014

A quick walk around Hanover Square at noontime Saturday found the downtown space getting ready for something special.

Groups of happy chefs were gathered under canopies, stirring ingredients and making conversation. A big aroma was building. The chili cook-off's serving-of-the-samples was just hours away.

At the M&T Bank side of the square, a line of people were patiently waiting for their turn at the booth set up in a portable trailer. Volunteers from the Updowntowners were selling tickets for two events that would draw hungry and thirsty people into downtown establishments: the Sandwich Stroll and the Margarita Mix-Off.

Since 1985, Syracuse Winterfest has done its best to make sure that Central New Yorkers don't merely suffer their way through the cold and snow.

In its 29 years of ice carvings, ice castles and ice cubes jingling inside many drinks, Winterfest indeed has become part of Syracuse's folk lore.

Sometimes the two weeks of February events take place in the bitter cold.

But sometimes they're accompanied by a warm front. This has happened so often, in fact, that the phrase "Winterfest Thaw" has entered the local urban phrase book.

On Saturday afternoon, temperatures were in the 40s as the crowds came to Hanover Square, ready for fun.

Cindi O'Brien, of Mattydale, was headed to the Chili Cook-off canopy of DJ's Inn.

To say that O'Brien was dressed colorfully would be an understatement.

Her green sweater was covered by a red, chili-pepper-themed apron. One of her leggings was green and one was red. White fuzzy boot-tops rode over those. A red hat sat atop her head. And on her back were big, red and green wings.

Why?

"Because we love the atmosphere and fun out here," she says. "I like meeting people. Life is short. People should enjoy it. No matter the weather."

(The Winterfest site includes a list of winners in its various events.)

A tailgating party called Martinfest has taken over a parking lot across Water Street and on the back side of Hanover Square.

Three Martin siblings and a Martin cousin invited friends and family.

They've set up a Perfect Pitch tournament board for that bean bag toss game.

A portable barbecue will grill chicken and shrimp kabobs.

There are plenty of beverages stacked in coolers, and those friends -- full disclosure, my dear wife Karen and I are among the invitees -- freely wander back and forth between the parking lot and Hanover Square.

Michelle, Kevin, Scott and Jason Martin are good hosts, and the conversation among the couple dozen friends, who come and go in a steady wave, is lively.

Winter here in Syracuse is justly celebrated.

Yet something else creeps into the conversation, too.

Friends turn and point to the SU flag flying proudly at the top of the nearby State Tower. Yes, when darkness falls on this party, people will be choosing just where to watch Syracuse vs. Duke, Round Two.

And March Madness is coming. And that means spring can't be far behind.

One of the underlying themes of Winterfest, you see, is that everybody knows that by late February,  a corner has been turned. Soon enough, the season will be gone for another year.

Has Winterfest drawn you to downtown Syracuse over the years? What do you like about the concept of celebrating this season?