It seems downright counter-intuitive. A festival in the dead of winter? Walking tours, ice carving, outdoor sculpture, and a parade in February when spirits are as low as the wind-chill?

The brainchild of Louise Decker, a former Lambertville store-owner whose inventory included skis and winter sports accessories, the Lambertville-New Hope Winter Festival draws literally thousands of winter-weary participants looking for a bright spot in the dark of winter. The festival, designed to increase foot traffic during a traditionally slower season, showcases a surprisingly vast choice of events and activities for every age and interest. The calendar includes an afternoon tea at the Wedgewood Inn, a hot fudge sundae tasting, a tour of the historic Parry Mansion, a children’s art show and puppet theater, a Livingston Taylor concert, a self-guided tour of B&Bs, a beer tasting of "winter brew," a sold-out chili cook-off, and more.

Decker’s modest proposal has grown into an annual tradition that draws crowds estimated to number 25,000 to 30,000. This year organizers of Lambertville-New Hope’s ninth annual Winter Festival – Wednesday, February 2, through Sunday, February 6, have expanded the schedule, running an extra two days by starting midweek.

"We’ve had snow, we’ve had rain, we’ve had freezing weather, and the crowds still come," says Barry Ziff, a New Hope resident and member of the town’s Historical Society, which offers tours during the festival. "We have had to add guides to the tours because so many people show up."

Ziff leads the tour of New Hope’s downtown historical landmarks this year, Sunday, February 6, at 2 p.m., starting at Parry Mansion – home of the Historical Society and a building with a diverse past. (There are separate tours of the Parry Mansion , Saturday and Sunday, February 5 and 6, from 1 to 5 p.m.) Ziff is part of the army of volunteers staging this annual event under the umbrella of Twin River Town Projects Inc.

Some of the most popular elements of the event, says Susan Waller, who co-chairs the event with longtime New Hope resident Scott McGill, are actually the outdoor ones. "The Saturday afternoon parade, with a route through both Lambertville and New Hope, is always a highlight, with Mummers and marching bands and a real small town feel."

Seven outdoor sculptures, placed throughout New Hope, create the opportunity for an artistic stroll through the town, or you can attend one of two artist-directed tours during the festival weekend, Friday, February 4, at 3 p.m., and TK. The sculptures, chosen by a juried panel from submissions by artists all over the country, include some works by local artists. "These were ‘blind’ submissions to the jury, so we are very proud that some of our own made the final cut," says Robin Larsen, executive director of New Hopes Arts Inc., a not-for-profit group dedicated to supporting the arts, and an active partner in Winter Festival. "All seven sculptures add a fascinating touch to our town, which becomes a magnificent open-air art museum." The current pieces will remain on view through April, after which a new series will be installed.

Dana Stewart, who migrated to the Lambertville area from his native California to become involved with the Johnson Atelier before it closed last year, now has his own casting studio in Lambertville and serves as a consultant to art foundries around the country. Last year his whimsical piece for the Winter Festival, "Boomer," led to all kinds of interpretations.

"People would say, ‘Oh, I know, it’s a dinosaur,’ or ‘I can definitely see that it’s a dog,’ and I’d agree with everyone. I love doing pieces that are open to interpretation," says the 53-year-old sculptor, a graduate of San Diego State University and the son of an aerospace industry engineer and a designer-decorator mother.

This year Stewart’s "What Tail," a bronze "beastie" with a 17-foot tail, will be exhibited at the entrance to Triumph Restaurant & Brewery in New Hope’s Union Square (which unveils its Winterfest beer at the restaurant with winter songs performed by the Princeton Gay Mens’ Chorus, on Thursday, February 3, at 8 p.m). "This one is also open to interpretation, and to me, that’s the whole point," he says. Several of the sculptors, including Stewart, will be on hand to greet visitors to the Winter Festival on Friday, February 4, from 3 to 4 p.m., with an informal walking tour starting at the Wedgwood Inn, 11 West Bridge Street, New Hope, the site of "Spring," a granite and glass sculpture by Christoph Spath, former head of the stone division at Johnson Atelier.

Sculptor Kevin Forest of Buckingham, Pennsylvania, chooses steel and bronze to explore the unity of the body, mind, and spirit – and mother, father, and child – in "Trinity," located outside New Hope’s Golden Door Gallery. Robert Ressler, whose work has been commissioned for public spaces up and down the east coast, created a whimsical and decidedly child-friendly piece, "Wall St. Serenade," an oversized concertine-playing frog with an upturned hat ready to receive tips.

A different kind of "sculpture" will also unfold during the weekend, with chunks of ice as the medium. Live demonstrations of ice carving take place at 16 locations on Saturday and Sunday, February 5 and 6, from 1 to 4 p.m. (visit web site listed at end for details). Ice carver Mark Mastrangelo – who has led ice carving workshops for aspiring "arctic artists," netting participants a "Bachelor of Ice" degree – transforms 300-pound blocks of ice into works of art.

Festival pioneer Carl Glassman, owner of the Wedgwood Inn, recalls that many doomsayers predicted that the concept of a winter event in the two towns could not possibly succeed. "People thought that nothing much could happen in this region over the winter," says Glassman, who fell in love with the New Hope area – and his wife, whom he met in the town at a concert – in 1977.

"The festival was the first project that linked Lambertville and New Hope, and even though we may officially be in two different states, we are definitely symbiotic," says Glassman, a former project director for a Princeton think tank back in the 1970s who left it all behind and purchased a crumbling New Hope property, bent on turning it into an inn.

"I have never looked back," says Glassman, an active member of the Winter Festival committee since its inception. The Wedgwood Inn is the site of the Festival’s opening event, an afternoon tea and kickoff reception on Wednesday, February 2, from 5 to 7 p.m.

Inns and B&Bs, an integral part of the New Hope-Lambertville weekend-scape always figure into the Festival calendar, and this year is no exception. Ten inns will open certain rooms to visitors for a self-guided tour on Sunday, February 6, from 2 to 4 p.m. "People come back year after year, many of them armed with cameras, to see and record our interior decor, and to interpret what we do in their own homes," says Glassman. "It’s a form of imitation we find flattering."

A cornerstone event of the festival this year is a concert featuring singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor (James Taylor’s brother) on Friday, February 4, at the Solebury School. A pre-concert gala at the Inn at Lambertville Station, 11 Bridge Street, Lambertville, will kick off the evening.

Proceeds from Festival events that charge fees benefit community organizations in both New Hope and Lambertville. According to Glassman, the annual festival has already distributed over $150,000 in its eight-year history, with an emphasis on groups sponsoring recreation for the young.

Co-chair Susan Waller says the festival is the perfect antidote to short days and cold nights. At the parade – which takes place this year on Saturday, February 5, starting at the New Hope-Solebury High School on Bridge Street – she says, "People line the streets, and it is just a marvelous experience that makes you forget that it’s winter."

New Hope-Lambertville Winter Festival, Wednesday to Sunday, February 2 to 6. For a full listing of events, visit www.winterfestival.net/bydate.htm.

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