Get in the Spirit: Geneva Goes Big to Welcome Christmas

The city’s long-running tradition is back in full swing this year, complete with a candy cane pull, a parade, special retail deals, and appearances by Santa Lucia and St. Nick.

Santa Lucia, a Swedish tradition, arrives during the Friday parade. Proceeds from the Geneva House Tour help to fund Geneva’s downtown Christmas decor.

Geneva has long enjoyed a reputation for its well-attended festivals in the warm months: Swedish Days, Festival of the Vine, the Geneva Arts Fair.

But the first full weekend in December is, by far, the most festive time of the year in this community, because Geneva’s Christmas Walk fills the historic Third Street shopping district, along with the rest of downtown.

Excluding last year’s pandemic-hindered event, roughly 10,000 people annually flock to Geneva to greet Santa and welcome the holiday season. This year’s festivities take place Friday, Dec. 3 in Geneva.

“Seeing people happy and knowing we’re the kickoff to most people’s holiday is a great feeling,” says Laura Rush, communications manager for the Geneva Chamber of Commerce. “There are carolers, lights – there’s just excitement, fun, energy. You feel it. Everyone is just full of happiness and spirit. You don’t see any frowns at all, and that’s a pretty magical thing when you see how happy everyone is.”

Ever since the Chamber started this Christmas celebration in 1946, it’s been a highly anticipated event that evolves with each passing year.

What is everyone’s favorite part of this decades-old walk?

“Familiarity. Tradition. They say Geneva is like a Norman Rockwell picture, and I 100% agree,” says Rush. “It is very charming and festive. Nobody does Christmas like Geneva.”

Last year, the city hosted an abridged version of the Christmas Walk, but given heavy restrictions it wasn’t the same.

“The Christmas Walk, as we know it, did not happen last year,” Rush says. “This year, the Chamber hopes to safely incorporate its old traditions, including some that originated last year due to COVID restrictions.”

As is tradition, the Candy Cane Parade steps off at 5:45 p.m. Friday with a parade of sweets lovers trekking from Graham’s 318 Coffee House to the Third Street stage in front of the courthouse to present the first candy cane of the season to Mayor Kevin Burns.

This year, the march has been dubbed Bob’s Candy Cane Parade in honor of Bob Untiedt, co-owner of Graham’s Fine Chocolates and Ice Cream as well as Graham’s 318 Coffee House, who died in March after battling cancer.

Decades ago, Untiedt debuted the parade in combination with an old-fashioned candy cane pull hosted inside his shop. Both traditions remain a steadfast part of the Christmas Walk each year.

“Graham’s brings in candy cane makers from all over the country to make the candy canes in their shop,” says Rush.

Once the candy cane is delivered, Santa Lucia (a Swedish tradition) arrives and her attendants pass out Swedish cookies to visitors. Burns and Santa Lucia will light the large Christmas tree on the courthouse lawn, and then Santa Claus arrives, to the delight of the children in attendance.

Bill Otter, a Geneva High School graduate, has played Santa since 2019.

“I’ve been super excited about it,” says Otter. “Santa has been part of the Christmas Walk forever, and Christmas Walk has continued to expand to be an amazing event.”

All of these festivities typically play out between 6 and 6:30 p.m., Rush says. But there’s plenty more to enjoy the rest of Friday night and into Saturday.

Visits with Santa are available following his arrival at the courthouse until about 9:30 p.m. Friday. Santa also is available in his new Winter Wonderland in the Geneva Visitor’s Center, 10 S. Third St., on Saturdays and Sundays throughout December.

To keep Santa and his friends safe, visits will be by appointment only – but reservation time slots (available on the Chamber website) are every 5 minutes.

“Getting to see each one of these little friends come up and talk to me about Christmas and see the excitement on their face, no matter what it is they want for Christmas, that excitement gives you an unbelievable amount of energy,” says Otter, “and I tell them it fuels the Christmas spirit back at the North Pole.”

Santa does his best to see as many of his friends as he can, but if a child can’t visit Santa, there are other ways to connect.

“They can always send me a letter, and they have an opportunity to drop them off right at the courthouse lawn post office, so it gets right to the North Pole,” Otter says. “They can make their wishes known.”

Another highlight of the Christmas Walk is the special holiday shopping in downtown Geneva.

“Stores get involved – they stay open later that evening and some stores have discounts,” says Roxanne Osborne, who owns the bookshop Harvey’s Tales with her husband, Chuck. “We serve free hot chocolate outside our store. Other stores roast chestnuts or have little giveaways – anything to draw people into the store.

“Everything just looks so festive and so pretty, and people are walking around enjoying the atmosphere,” she adds. “It’s just really an adorable, small-town event for everyone.”

Another favorite part of Geneva’s festivities is the Holiday House Tour, which coincides with the Christmas Walk.

This ticketed event, which usually sells out, allows patrons to visit five professionally decorated homes on a self-guided tour either Friday, Dec. 3, or Saturday, Dec. 4.

“Every house is decorated differently,” Rush says. “What’s interesting about it is some homes, you walk in and you think, ‘Oh, I could never afford to do this. And other homes you think, ‘Oh, I could totally do this – that would totally work in my house.’ That’s what I love about our decorators – they do it all and the homes are all so different.”

One stop on this year’s tour is a 1960s-inspired home, and the decorators are keeping that in mind with complementing holiday decor – think vintage aluminum Christmas trees, Rush says.

“Anything showcased in the house tour sells out pretty quickly, which is great for the shop that provided those pieces,” Rush says. “It’s great marketing for them.”

Holiday House Tour tickets are ordered not just by locals, but from people all around the U.S., including Texas and California, Rush says. And while those out-of-towners may be visiting family, the fact that they return this specific weekend “shows that people like Christmas in Geneva,” Rush says. “There’s just something charming about our downtown in Christmas.”

The Holiday House Tour also is a huge fundraiser for the Geneva Chamber of Commerce, which oversees the holiday decorations for Geneva. The lights, greenery and ribbons around town, the complimentary carriage rides – all are covered by the Chamber, and a portion of its funding for the event comes from the house tour, Rush says.

“It’s a fabulous gift to the city,” Rush says. “You’re giving Christmas to Geneva when you experience the house tour.”

Holiday House Tour tickets are available online or by calling (630) 232-6060. Tickets cost $35.

For those who either can’t make it to the Christmas Walk or can’t get enough Christmas cheer in just one weekend, the city now hosts a second weekend of festivities.

Geneva’s second annual Cocoa Crawl takes place Saturday, Dec. 11, allowing patrons to visit local shops and try their hot chocolate, coffee and tea offerings. The Chamber put together this event last year to inspire more Christmas spirit. It quickly sold out, so the Chamber decided to try it again this year.

Harvey’s Tales will participate this year, because Osborne believes it channels the same spirit of the Christmas Walk.

“It’s another fun event that provides so much joy to the people you come in contact with,” she says.
A caroling event also is scheduled to take place, though the details are still being worked out as COVID regulations fluctuate, Rush says.

Finally, free carriage rides around the downtown area take place from Dec. 4 through 19.

“We’re all trying to gear up to make this a really big year,” says Osborne. “I’m increasing how much I’m lighting the building just to make it look festive and welcome everybody back and bring a bit more cheer as we struggle through this ongoing pandemic. Everyone is so excited, and there’s just a sense of community when you’re walking around downtown.”