Youngster Anna Leigh Peterson left WinterFest 2022 with abundantly higher spirits — and deeper pockets — than when she arrived.
As she walked out the door of the Go Get the Pho restaurant building in Aberdeen Saturday afternoon, Peterson, still glowing, couldn’t believe her gingerbread house had won first prize, as part of the group category, in this year’s WinterFest gingerbread contest.
“It’s shocking and amazing,” she said shortly after receiving her $100 dollar cash prize.
Peterson’s crucial components: a popcorn-ball shrub and a Fruit Loop-shingled roof — additions tempting enough to lead Peterson and her grandmother, Katie, when they were constructing the award-winning dwelling over Thanksgiving, to coin the motto, “Quit eating the house.”
Over 250 people cast their votes for the contest, an uptick from last year’s number, according to Bette Worth, vice president of the executive board of the Downtown Aberdeen Association. Worth and the board’s president, Bobbi McCracken, helped lead WinterFest — a holiday extravaganza complete with live reindeer, Santa Claus, bustling downtown businesses, and, of course, gingerbread houses — through its eighth rendition in downtown Aberdeen on Friday and Saturday.
“It kind of kicks off the holiday spirit for December,” Worth said.
Several other entries at the gingerbread contest explored the bounds of conventional gingerbread house building. Rick Moyer, who helped publicize WinterFest, won first prize in the “adult” category for his entirely-edible rendition of the Apollo 11 moon landing scene.
A few houses down stood an entry from fish biologist Kurt Holt: a gingerbread razor clam poking up from a brown-sugar beach, complete with a candy clam shovel.
Those who had the honor of judging such creations did so during a Christmas carol vocal serenade of the Goldenaires, a high school acapella group, and later, keyboardist Amanda Ransom.
While McCracken said it was hard to guess exactly how many people attended WinterFest this year, she was able to pinpoint where some of them were traveling from. Based on the zip codes those voters wrote on their paper-slip ballots and entries in raffle tickets, a notable portion of attendees were from out of town, according to McCracken. She concluded that the festival drew travelers from Bellevue, Seattle and Olympia, along with the locals. Because of the tourists it draws, the festival is partially funded by Aberdeen’s lodging tax.
And those who come from out of town to stay in hotels are just part of the equation. McCracken said part of the WinterFest goal is to bring a buzz to local businesses.
“We are trying to do our best to encourage people to shop here,” McCracken said. “We have some great businesses here. We need to support them as much as we can.”
Many festival-goers bounced between the gingerbread contest in the Go Get the Pho building and the holiday market set up in the D & R event center. That increased foot traffic for both Past and Present Mercantile and Waugh’s apparel.
“I feel like we had really good crowds all day Saturday, it was steady all day,” Worth said.
The holiday market also provided an opportunity for local vendors like Holly Houston to sell handmade products and foods. Houston, who runs the business Honey Glow Harvest, displayed an array of handcrafted beeswax creations — like candles made from morel mushroom molds — and honey morsels at Saturday’s market. Other than local farmers markets, Houston said, events like WinterFest are her best opportunity for sales, especially when the tourist season gets slow during winter.
“We just do our best and hope that we can provide a fun weekend for people, provide some entertainment and a way to make money for our local vendors,” McCracken said.
“This is a very giving, supportive community,” McCracken said.
McCracken acknowledged the many volunteers and sponsors that make the event possible.
WinterFest has always stimulated the local economy, but this year, for the first time ever, it provided a hooved attraction.
On Friday evening, amidst a steady rain shower, two live reindeer mulled about a pen in the City Drug parking lot, hooves matting a carpet of wood chips. Families gawked and smiled while photographing the antler-crowned beasts, who, upon shaking their thick hides, released a clamor of sleigh-bell cheer. Nearby, Santa took pictures with children and heard their Christmas wishes.
Although they couldn’t promise that the reindeer would be returning to WinterFest next year, McCracken and Worth said Friday’s cheer was another stride in the evolution of WinterFest, a festival that’s evolved each year since its inception.