This story was originally published in December 2014. This year’s Once Upon Christmas details are available here.
I didn’t grow up on a farm, nor did my parents or grandparents. None of us ever got around by horse-drawn wagon, either. So when I say that a visit to Heritage Park always feels like a walk down memory lane, the memories aren’t necessarily my own. They are those collective memories of how life in small-town Canada used to be, and a feeling of nostalgia for times past, when life was simpler and less rushed. With less plastic.
Each year, for several weekends in November and December, an old-fashioned Christmas is brought to life at Heritage Park’s Once Upon a Christmas event. A visit to the park during this time offers up endless Yuletide treats. Beautifully decorated heritage homes? Check. Delicious treats from the bakery, candy shop, and cafés? Absolutely. Christmas crafts and cookie decorating? Yup. Roaming carolers and period actors? Oh yes. And much more. You can visit with Santa and snuggle with his Christmas Creatures in their petting enclosure, tour the park in a horse-drawn wagon, visit an enchanting collection of miniature railways, and get a unique family Christmas card photo at the vintage photo parlor. There are even opportunities for some terrific Christmas shopping, and not only for the grown-ups.
Our family was lucky to visit the park on a warm, sunny day in early December. There was a bright white carpet of snow on the ground, the park was decked out with garlands, wreaths and ribbons, and the whole effect was incredibly cheerful. Keep in mind that some parts of the park have been to put to bed for the winter. You won’t be able to ride the steam train, the paddlewheeler or the rides on the midway. But with so much holiday fun going on, I promise that you (and your kids!) won’t mind a bit.
Maybe it’s because I’ve never lived in a small town, or perhaps most of us feel the same, but I adore the quaintness of a town square, or the historical neighbourhoods contained within an otherwise modern city. The historic shops, hotel, city hall, bakery, church, school, homes, stables and other buildings on Heritage Park’s two main streets are beautifully preserved, inside and out, and they never look better than when they’re decorated for the holidays. The kids picked out a treat from the candy shop, so we didn’t go into the bakery this time, but the smell of fresh sausage rolls and gingerbread wafting down the street made it hard to stay away.
I have always found miniatures captivating and the collection of railways on display in the Snooker Hall did not disappoint. Multiple trains busily zooming to and fro, set amongst a wide variety of festive buildings and landscapes, held our attention for quite some time. My favourite bit had to be the miniature clothesline outside Santa’s Workshop. It was hung with little Santa suits and hats. Adorable.
I don’t know if they’ll look back and decide we were negligent parents, but our kids have never been to visit a mall Santa. It’s not that I dislike the idea of the visit and the photo, but I’m put off by the long lines, and it’s hard to find a good time during the busy holiday season to pack everyone up and head off to a mall teeming with shoppers. I am happy to report that, after our visit to Once Upon a Christmas, I now have photos of my children with Santa! Both kids were excited to meet him in the Railway Roundhouse and I was gratified by the short wait of just a few minutes. A visit with the small farm animals in the big guy’s petting zoo added some extra sweetness (and softness!) to the whole experience.
Heritage Park’s farm and town stables are home to some amazing horses and, lucky for us, they don’t demand overtime pay during the holidays. Christmas visitors can board the big old farm wagon for a scenic ride around the park, pulled by one of these beautiful and hard-working horse teams.
Young crafters are invited to head to the basement of the charming new Famous 5 Centre of Canadian Women, which has been converted into a busy Christmas workshop. Your children can choose from several holiday craft projects, all materials are provided, and volunteers are happy to help them get their chosen project looking just right. Is there anything sweeter on a Christmas tree than a child’s hand-made ornament? Our kids were proud of their creations and hung them on the tree as soon as they got home.
The Kids-Only store in Burns’ Barn was a big highlight for our two young ‘uns. It was the first time they’ve ever gone shopping without one of us! Before they headed behind the bright red curtains, we filled out a form, indicating how much they were allowed to spend, who they were shopping for, and whether they were carrying the money or we would pay when they finished making their selections. A few minutes later they emerged beaming, having chosen surprise Christmas gifts for my husband and me (and each with change from a fiver, though the available gifts top out at $20). They happily took turns carrying the brown paper shopping bag for the rest of our visit. It’s been over a week since that day, and the gifts they purchased are safely hidden at home, surprisingly still secret. I’m looking forward to unwrapping a sweet surprise on Christmas morning
Heritage Park is a Calgary treasure. Not only is it an enormous piece of parkland in a stunning location, but its vast historical collections, combined with a dedicated staff and numerous volunteers, do more than display and explain the past. They bring it to life for all of us to enjoy. And they do a particularly lovely job of it at Christmas.
Not all of the memories at Heritage Park are from times long past. Some of my young family’s best ones have also been made there… and we just made a few more.