Darkness falls earlier and earlier this month, but downtown Waterbury will shine on Saturday night during the 10th annual River of Light parade.
The parade will start at Thatcher Brook Primary School Saturday at 5 p.m. and end at Dac Rowe Field on North Main Street for the customary bonfire and hot cocoa.
This year’s theme is reinvention and remaking, a more cerebral focus than the concepts of food, plants or flight from years past.
“I think a lot of us are thinking about reusing and recycling,” said MK Monley, the Thatcher Brook art teacher who’s behind the event. “Recycling is an important part of what needs to be happening.”
Many artists held on to their lanterns from previous parades, and this year they’re encouraged to take those past creations and reinvent them. A taco transforms into a giant bug, a mushroom becomes a brontosaurus, and children’s lanterns from previous parades now form an hourglass.
The children in Monley’s art class created their lanterns with a more literal approach to the recycling theme, decorating plastic bottles and jugs with colorful paper and markers. In that classroom was born the idea of the River of Light.
In 2009, Monley brought Gowri Savoor, a member of Vermont Arts Council, into the classroom to teach her children the Indian art form Rangoli, images made with brightly colored rice. Monley and Savoor kept in touch, and Savoor suggested they organize a lantern parade in 2010. Lantern parades are tradition in England, where Savoor is from, and she missed the spectacle.
The two worked together and produced the first River of Light, a school activity at the dawn of winter.
“The first year, it was snowing. It was beautiful,” Monley said.
The students marched from Thatcher Brook to Rusty Parker Park on Main Street, and then up Railroad Street when the snow made Main Street too hazardous.
The first parade involved only students, parents and teachers.
“The initial feedback was, ‘We loved it we hope you do it again,’ and I was like ‘Are you kidding me?’” she said.
As a school-sanctioned event, there was a lot of responsibility on the faculty’s shoulders.
“While it was a huge success the first year, we decided we wanted the community to take ownership of it,” she said. The tradition — now a $10,000 production — continued to grow.
Norwich University cadets help keep the streets clear for light-bearers. Fire performers swing and spit flame. Crossett Brook Middle School’s junk band and drum line and the Sambatucada samba band provide the marching tunes.
And the Waterbury Recreation Department stokes a bonfire at the end of the route as National Honor Society students from Harwood Union High School dole out hot cocoa.
Monley made sure there’s more this year than last, as the supply tends to run out with the sheer number of people who attend the luminous performance.
“It’s a booming night in the town,” she said. “We stopped trying to get a table at the restaurants down town; we just have a potluck at someone’s house when it’s done.”
Monley said this year’s parade will have 15 to 20 larger sculptures, and she appreciates all the support the event receives.
“It takes a village,” she said, “I hate to sound cliché, but it takes the support of all the people in the community and that’s how we’re able to do it every year.”
And the tradition shows no sign of slowing.
“There’s a reason we have art in our lives and in the world. It’s an important part of who we are as people,” Monley said. “You can be a part of a living, breathing art parade and just have fun.”