Strolling a forest path lit with hundreds of luminaries while singing Christmas carols and sipping wassail is a surefire way to get in the Christmas spirit
That experience is open to the public free of charge during Forest Park Nature Center’s annual Holiday Shop and Stroll from 6 to 8 p.m. on the first three Fridays in December, as well as Saturday, Dec. 15.
“We’ve been doing the Shop and Stroll event for over 20 years. I think there were more staff people than participants the first year, but it’s really grown into a huge event,” said Kristi Shoemaker, the Nature Center’s chief naturalist.
The family-friendly event now draws between 300 and 500 people each of its four nights, she noted. Admission is free, but donations are accepted to help offset the cost.
About 400 luminaries will line the park’s Valley Trail, leading to a campfire where strollers can warm themselves and drink hot chocolate. “Sometimes people will burst into song or tell stories,” Shoemaker said. “It’s just a really fun atmosphere.”
The full loop is about a half-mile trek, but some choose just to walk to the campfire and back. Shoemaker said the event will go on in all types of weather, including rain or snow.
“Whether we have a lot of people come out is dependent on the weather, but we’ll have it no matter what the weather does,” she said. “One year we had six inches of snow, so we had to dump out the lanterns before we could light them.”
Volunteers are enlisted to help light the candles and also to bring them in after each night’s event. “We do have to take in the candles after each event because squirrels like to eat them,” Shoemaker said with a laugh. “So it takes a lot of people and a lot of time to put that all together.”
Strollers may also see a few nocturnal animals in the woods, though the animals often hide when crowds are near. “Sometimes we hear barred owls hooting and sometimes we’ll see deer walking around or maybe a raccoon,” Shoemaker said.
The shopping part of the event takes place inside the Nature Center building, where the annual Nature Art show and sale is underway and will continue through Dec. 31. The show features unique artwork created by local artists, including original nature-related photographs, paintings, woodcarvings and handmade jewelry.
Shoppers can also peruse nature-related gifts in the park’s Trailhead Nature Store.
“There are a lot of earth-friendly items in the gift store, things that are fair trade or sustainably made,” Shoemaker said. “We also have a lot of fun things for kids, like toys and puppets, and we have lots of bird-feeding items and field guides. If there’s someone on your list who really likes nature, it’s a great place to shop for them.”
Musical entertainment and nature-related talks will also take place inside the Nature Center with performances from 6 to 7 p.m. and from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. each night of the Shop and Stroll.
Entertainment will include Randy Starnes with the River Spirit Flute Circle and the Irish band Turas on Dec. 7; the Olli Recorder Ensemble from Bradley University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on Dec. 14; the Forest Flute Ensemble on Dec. 15; singer, songwriter and storyteller Mary Greenhood and also music by Stringworks on Dec. 21.
In addition, Forest Park Nature Center staff will present nature programs on Dec. 14 and Dec. 15. Light refreshments, including cookies and wassail, will be available.
“People have really made it a family tradition. We also get a lot of the same volunteers and musicians and performers that like to come back every year as well,” Shoemaker said.
Jessica Wilson of Peoria plans to check out the event for the first time this year with her husband, Chrys, and their 2-year-old son, Lincoln. “We love going on walks at Forest Park Nature Center with Lincoln and exploring nature. It’s so peaceful. Christmas is our favorite holiday, so we think we’ll really enjoy the Shop & Stroll,” she said.
Other upcoming events at Forest Park Nature Center in December include:
- A Folk and Country Jam at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 9. Music lovers of all ages are encouraged to join in by singing or playing an instrument or by listening in the audience.
- The Science and Nature Book Club at 11 a.m. Dec. 8. The club, which is open to all who read the book, will be discussing “When Nature Calls” by local author Jannifer Powelson.
- A kids’ shopping experience from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 15 during which parents can relax with a hot beverage while park staff help kids select and wrap gifts priced $1 and up in the Trailhead Nature Store.
- A program on Photographing Owls of Illinois hosted by the Peoria Audubon Society at 7 p.m. Dec. 12.
- The 15th annual nature photography contest will kick off Dec. 1 and run through Jan. 27. Three photos may be submitted in five different categories at an entry fee of $3 for each photograph.
Forest Park Nature Center trails are open from dawn to dusk year-round, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
“I think there’s a misconception out there that we’re closed in the winter, but we’re not,” Shoemaker said. “We do have a lot of hikers that continue to hike throughout the year, especially if we get days that are a little bit warmer.”
For more information about the Forest Park Nature Center Shop and Stroll or other events, visit the website at www.peoriaparks.org/program/forest-park-nature-center-programming or call 309-686-3360.