It was nearly impossible to drive through the downtown due to the crowds of pedestrians and children walking around. The sidewalks were packed with people coming in and out of storefronts, carrying small packages and treats; lines at vendors were a dozen deep of people eagerly awaiting roasted chestnuts or almonds, hot cocoa or something else to warm them up. The crowds gazed with smiles and wide eyes at the attractions around them. For every family that had their fill and left, another one was just walking up to take their place.
But this idyllic winter celebration wasn’t in Holly. It was in Frankenmuth.
In downtown Holly, a crowd of a few dozen meandered up and down the sidewalks and through Battle Alley. Children listening to local resident Joe Mishler struggled to hear his holiday tales over the sound of the paid professional singers outside. The live Nativity and community tent sponsored by First Baptist church was busy, with its hearty chili, coffee, cocoa and cake enjoyed by a few guests who had gathered to await the brief parade, starting a few hours after most of the stores downtown closed.
Although that account of the last weekend of Holly’s Dickens Old Fashioned Christmas festival sounds as bleak as the weather was that day, it isn’t nearly as dreary as those August days a few months back, where the streets were empty and silent with no one awaiting the arrival of Carry Nation, and no knowing of when, if ever, she’d be visiting in the future.
The economic woes of Michigan are a time-worn explanation for nearly every challenge and difficulty we’re facing these days. Municipalities are struggling with budget shortfalls from declined revenue sharing, property value decreases and the exodus of residents to anywhere with better job prospects. Citizens have less disposable income, meaning less support for businesses, which in turn results in less resources and support for community, charitable or non-profit organizations, including Holly’s once-renowned Carry Nation and Dickens festivals. One would think that Carry Nation and Dickens are just unfortunate casualties of the economic slump.
That is, until you look around Michigan and see that there are countless other festivals and events still occurring, whether they’re limping along or going full speed ahead.
It’s an even more enervating situation when the uniqueness and marketability of Carry Nation and Dickens are considered. These aren’t just random theme festivals for the sake of having a block party; they’re concepts community of Holly can strongly identify with and be defined by—they play on the historical and structural features of Holly that differentiate us from other communities. Every community is unique and special in its own way, but Carry Nation and Dickens were annual promotions of specifically why Holly is unique and special. They were reminders to ourselves as well.
Despite the unbelievable potential that Carry Nation and Dickens carried with them, and a long history of success, in May of last year, Carry Nation’s appearance was scratched indefinitely. Dickens scaled back severely and still ended up $8,200 in the red, surely signaling its demise as well if it wasn’t for a lifeline appropriation by the Holly Downtown Development Authority, giving it one more chance to spring back to life this year—a chance that will require some serious reform on the part of the Dickens festival organizers.
On the surface, it’s lack of money, volunteers and organizational support. But you only need to ask around town a little to determine some of the deeper factors that have led to their decline. You’ll find the topic of Holly’s festivals evokes very powerful, but very polar, reactions in people. Some people recall festivals of days past and speak longingly and supportively of how great they were and how great they could be again. In others you can detect a strong stigma attached to even the name of the festival, with hissed disdain over lost glory and suggestions that the coffin just be nailed. The optimists and the pessimists.
Attending festival committee meetings is another telling experience. If you attended one of those festival committee meetings in the past, you’d be regaled with stories of glorious past festivals, where the streets overflowed with people. There was a beer tent on every corner, games and contests, singers and actors. There was no concern over money or support in those gilded times; people lined up to fund, volunteer and attend these festivals. They practically put on themselves, apparently.
As eyes gloss over into sepia-toned visions of the past, a few still in the present transition to mild complaining and frustration of how it’s just not the same anymore, “why don’t we do that anymore?” and what a shame it is that we can’t or don’t. In the end, there’s about 15 minutes of work and planning interspersed with 45 minutes of reminiscing.
It’s not as if these meetings aren’t attended by well-intentioned, enthusiastic and talented volunteers. But as the days turn into weeks and months, it becomes clear that the way forward is not taking us back; resources are scraped for and deadlines are met with, “the best we could do,” and the energy and enthusiasm is compressed into resentment like a shaken soda bottle, eventually erupting and just making a mess.
There is no shortage of attempts to break this pattern, but few find purchase. Suggestions as to different ways to approach needs or problems are met with resistance, sometimes laced with venom. The vitriol usually comes from those long-time volunteers who feel that their past contributions are challenged or their toes are being stepped on. “This is the way we’ve always done it,” is a common defense.
Likewise, well-received ideas end up like the Little Red Hen, with much verbal support but little work or action by everyone. Volunteers who wish to be nothing more than helpers and followers shy away for fear they will be required to give more initiative than they wish to, especially when the only calls for help are ambiguous: “We need volunteers!”