INNISFAIL – As dusk fell over the Innisfail and District Historical Village the growing crowd walked back and forth along the paths marvelling at the kaleidoscopic lights from more than 200 citizen-made lanterns.
It was the big exclamation mark put on the town’s inaugural Innisfail Lantern Festival. More than 350 citizens attended the free one-day event, mostly local but many others from outside of town to take in the glow, and most importantly the prevailing sense of calm and freedom that merged with joy.
“I think the lantern festival is kind of spiritual. It kind of shows freedom, makes me feel calm and peaceful,” said Emma Sahlen, 13, who made a lantern for the festival. “Seeing all the beautiful lanterns around me makes me happy.”
The July 24 event was initiated just over two months ago by local businessmen Dale Dunham and Shaun Steen. The lantern festival idea was immediately seized by the community, with many citizens jumping in to volunteer.
The town and businesses donated financial support. Leading up to July 24 there were several public lantern-making workshops. More than 300 were created. Many of them wound up hanging on village trees or lining the walkways.
“You often see these things at the big places. You never see them in small little communities,” said Sarah McKee, a resident of Red Deer, who came with her friend Maria Kingma. McKee is working this summer for the Innisfail & Area Family Day Home Society, whose clients from Innisfail and Penhold created 15 lanterns for the festival. “This could be something cool for Innisfail to be known for. It brings in a sense of unity.”
Dunham and Steen were at the historical village early in the morning to set up. They were joined by a team of dedicated volunteers.
By noon the outdoor Rotary shelter was filling up for another lantern-making workshop. Rotary club members were busy cooking up hamburgers and hotdogs.
By mid-afternoon hundreds had attended. Some left but many came back in the evening for the lighting of the lanterns. They also returned to bask in the joy and freedom of being able to attend a fun and unique community event without worrying about COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s good for the community because there are so many kids and adults suffering from depression and isolation,” said Innisfail’s Rachel Wiberg, who attended with her nine-year-old son Eulin to make a lantern. “Just being able to be around people without being masked is a breath of fresh air.”
Late in the afternoon, volunteers led a parade of lantern-holding citizens to senior residences, including the new Autumn Grove facility. Lantern carriers stayed outside but gave seniors the opportunity to view their creations of light. Their efforts brought many more smiles.
“The happiness that people had being able to be out in public and having a shared experience, being able to do other stuff with people and seeing the smiles, that meant a lot to me. I heard that from several different people how nice it was for them to be able to do that,” said Dunham, whose inspiration for Innisfail’s Lantern Festival came from his past years in Victoria, B.C., where an annual lantern festival has been a huge success.
Lanterns are said to be a universal symbol of brightness, transcendence and guiding light through periods of darkness. It is also said lanterns bring a promise of a new beginning, yearned by countless Innisfailians after 16 months of gloom from the COVID pandemic.
“For me it was always being the way forward, light being something you can be drawn to. Being the light, being something more than what you are on a day-to-day basis. The symbolism for me is lighting the way forward from where we were,” said Dunham. “We are each others’ friends and we may not always agree but we still have to be here for each other, and that is what we are here today. We are all doing something beautiful.”
The event wrapped up in the late evening. Dunham and Steen publicly thanked volunteers and sponsors, and of course the hundreds of citizens who answered the call of being the light. Both men were ecstatic with the overwhelming positive public response of the inaugural event but already they’re setting their sights on next year.
“I think it’s important for the community to have, especially for a growing community with younger families moving into town,” said Steen.
Just a few weeks ago, the festival’s organizing group became the Innisfail Lantern Society, fully incorporated with the province as a legal non-profit group with a board of directors. “We were reaching out to the community for donations. We wanted it to be transparent,” said Dunham, adding the event, which received financial assistance from the town and many businesses and citizens, put on the event without any debt. “We wanted everybody who donated money to be able to see exactly where their money was going to.”
And the venue next year could be Centennial Park, which has been a resounding pre-COVID Canada Day success. Steen said Centennial Park will give organizers a bigger area to work with and an opportunity for citizens to walk around the lake and even create lantern installments along the lake’s walking paths.
“It will be more room for growth. This was amazing for the first year and maybe we’ll still do workshops here and have the main event down at Centennial Park,” said Steen. “It is a little bit bigger and I believe we will have a lot more people attend too.”