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Chain of Lights holiday tradition continues

by Barbara Van Reed

Sutton's Chain of Lights Christmas-time tradition continues in good form this season, with a full day of festivities on Saturday, December 7, along with a Santa parade through Manchaug the night before. Millbury's Chain of Lights takes place the following day, Sunday, December 8, and while it promises to be a fun-filled event, its road to realization this year was rocky.

Gary Vaillancourt, owner of Vaillancourt Folk Art told us the Sutton story. The idea for a holiday event started in 1995. The town had a lot of new residents, many of whom worked in Boston or along Rt. 128, and were not familiar with the local businesses. Gary, along with the owners of Eaton Farm Confectioners, Pleasant Valley Country Club, and Keown Orchard, started a Taste of Sutton day to give residents an opportunity to try different local foods. The following  year trolley rides became part of the event and over time more vendors and local churches joined in the tradition. For the churches it is now a major fundraiser, he said.

Several thousand visitors come to participate in this special day each year. “It's become an interesting social phenomenon,” said Gary. “Locals have made it a part of their Christmas tradition, and people come in from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, from all over.” He's seeing kids who came with their parents, now all grown up and bringing their own kids.

But it's a lot of work and costs a lot of money to do, he added. Success of the event depends on people like Christine Watkins. “It's such a blessing to have her coordinate it all,” he said. And people like Mary and Wayne Whittier and family, who decorate the Sutton Common every year. “People think the town decorates the Common, but it's the Whittiers. What a wonderful gift to the town.”  

Christine has been on the planning committee since 1999 and has been the overall coordinator for the past two. “It's such a fun day,” says Christine, clearly enjoying the volunteer job. She's a homemaker, she explains, and so has more time than many of the business people who participate. Christine designs the trolley routes, produces the promotional literature, coordinates the volunteers for each location, and markets the event throughout the Blackstone Valley area.

The trolleys are an integral part of the event, bringing participants to each of the far-flung stops. “The trolleys are huge,” said Christine, “especially for kids who don't have drivers licenses, because their parents don't have to drive them. They can travel around town on their own.”  

The trolleys are expensive to bring in and this is where the major sponsors come in. This year the trolley sponsors are Atlas Box & Crating Company, Millbury Credit Union, Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, Millbury Savings Bank, Unibank, and Braley & Wellington.

Each of the twenty-two participating businesses will offer a unique experience. “It's important that each location has different food and events,” said Gary, “and our vendors are incredibly respectful about what each of them is doing. For example, there is only one Santa.

One of the earliest participants in the Sutton Chain of Lights was Whittier Farms, where this year visitors can take a horse-drawn wagon tour, a pony ride, watch a tractor pull, or pet the farm animals. Mary Whittier said one of their most popular features is a sandpile where kids can play with tractors. “The dads have as much fun with that as the kids.”   

Another early participant was the Sleighbell Christmas Tree Farm and Gift Barn, which officially hosts the Chain of Lights' Santa. “This is a great way to showcase what the town has to offer,” said Sleighbell owner Barbara O'Connor. “A lot of people don't appreciate all we have.” The farm will feature Santa with his sleigh for photo opportunities, a haywagon ride through the Christmas trees, and old-fashioned kettlecorn.      

Vaillancourt Folk Art will host a special ukelele Christmas concerts by New York singers Rebekah and Harry and their special guest Gus, a larger-than-life puppet.

For a complete list of paricipants and activities, go to the Sutton town website and click on the link at the bottom of the home page.

Millbury Chain of Lights

The Millbury Chain of Lights this year was off to an inauspicious start. In fact, it wouldn't be happening at all were it not for four people who felt strongly that the event is an important way to showcase the small businesses and organizations that, for them, make Millbury a special community.

Last year's event, coincident with the town's bicentennial celebration was to have been its tenth and last. The original founders had gone in different directions, and the treasury was depleted.

The four individuals who determined to organize the event for at least one more year were Robert Morton, Executive Vice President of Millbury Savings Bank, Lynne Feiz, Assistant Vice President of  Millbury Savings Bank, Deb Berthiaume of Millbury Towne Florist, and Judith O'Connor, Executive Director of the Millbury Senior Center.

“It was too much of a tradition to let it fall by the wayside,” said Lynne, so she and Rob contacted the other two. “Judy said she'd help keep it going, and Debbie said, 'I can do my part'.” So the four formed a quasi-board to hold the 2013 Chain of Lights holiday celebration.

The event is very important to the local merchants, many of them small businesses, Lynn explained. “It gives them an opportunity to show their products and services to townspeople, but also to attract new customers from throughout the Blackstone Valley.”  There is also an altruistic element, she believes. “They like to be part of the town and give back .It's not just about making money and getting customers, but also about participating in the community as one.”

Deb Berthiaume has been on the Chain of Lights committee from the beginning, its chair for the first seven years, and treasurer after that. She echoes Lynne's goal of supporting local businesses, keeping the shopping in Millbury.

Judy O'Connor is in it for the same reason. “I do it to stimulate the town. It's a fun event and gets everyone out and about and you see so many people you haven't seen.” Downtown Millbury is conducive to walking and she'd like to see more little shops come in. “The mall (Shoppes at Blackstone Valley) has hurt the businesses in town,” she says.

The senior center is a stop along the route. Judy bakes gingerbread men cookies and delights in kids coming in to decorate them. “To see their faces makes me so happy.”

Rob Morton is the committee member behind the scenes, reaching out to businesses to sponsor the publicity and the trolley that transports people to the outskirts of town. Goretti's Supermaket, Millbury Savings Bank, Wheelabrator Millbury Inc. are the corporate sponsors. Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce, Fidelity Bank, and Millbury Credit Union are the event sponsors.   

Deb is looking ahead to next year already. “I hope to get a new permanent board formed. The old board was burned out and floundered. We need new life. I'm making a public appeal to get new people and more ideas to keep it going.”

For the complete listing of participants and events, see page 17 of the November 15 issue of the Yankee Shopper.