Competing Santas featured at the “mini-Winterfest” on 15th Street this past week, as Mayor Nicholas Sacco’s bitter political rival Larry Wainstein, who ran a competing political ticket in the most recent municipal election, made a rare appearance at a Sacco event, bringing his own Mr. Claus for roaming photo opportunities with local families. Meanwhile, Sacco’s Santa and Mrs. Claus posed for professionally shot pictures with kids at the other end of the parking lot.
This year, for the first time, North Bergen’s popular Winterfest celebration was held on two nights in three locations. In addition to the crowded parade and festival on Dec. 3 along Bergenline Avenue from 85th to 76th Street, a tradition of more than 20 years, mini-Winterfests took place Dec. 7 on 45th Street at the Nutrition Center and on 15th Street in the Food Basics parking lot.
Finance and Revenue Commissioner Julio Marenco, serving as emcee at the downtown event, credited the expansion to Mayor Sacco.
“All this is the idea of our leader, who this election said, ‘We’re going to make sure downtown gets everything that uptown gets, because we are one city,’ ” commented Marenco.
“I’m very happy with both mini-Winterfests… We didn’t know if anybody was going to come, and we found it to be a terrific success.” –Mayor Nicholas Sacco
Winterfest hosted a wide variety of entertainment in its three sites, including rides, games, food, face-painting, singing from local school choruses, a petting zoo, strolling cartoon characters, a horse and buggy ride, and of course the photos with Santa(s).
Asked what was the best part of the event, 12th grader Sadialen Companioni was quick to answer. “Face painting.”
Eight students from 10th to 12th grades kept busy with a steady line of customers inside the Glamour Salon on Bergenline, painting an assortment of designs and characters on the faces of kids and adults. A poster on the wall offered suggestions but many patrons had their own ideas, preferring to get Olaf or Spider-man planted on their cheeks.
The artists were more than willing to accommodate. Organized by art teachers Marlene Sapoff and Alexandra Colta from the high school and Kennedy School respectively, they were raising money for the FCCLA, the Family Career and Community Leaders of America, a student organization that bakes cookies for the troops and sends them overseas. Last year the face-painters at Winterfest raised nearly $400 in donations, which went toward cooking supplies and postage.
Companioni got her face painted identically to her two fellow fest attendees, classmate Rabib Fardos and home economics teacher Jennifer Valle.
“I’m also their bowling coach,” said Valle. “So we decided to get matching hearts. When we have games we should show some school spirit and get our faces painted. Maybe an NB with some glitter. Or maybe a ball and pins.”
Two-year-old Luna De Vito was uninterested in face painting. She had a different preference. “She likes the choo-choo train,” said her mom, Courtney, pointing to a ride ferrying delighted kids on a loop around the street. The family traveled from Jersey City Heights to attend the free festival for the first time.
“It’s great,” said dad Justin De Vito. “The singing was awesome.”
William Candelaria agreed. A junior animator under the name Raymond Spunk with plans for his own YouTube cartoon show called Funbox, the 12th grader was attending the event with his brother Luis, a student at Hudson Community College. The pair stopped by a table to get free balloon animals from one of the volunteers. Luis snagged himself “a black wiener dog.”
“Mine is a monkey climbing a tree,” said William. “Well, it’s more of a sloth, really.” William’s favorite part of the event? “I personally think that the animals are the best part,” he said, gesturing to the petting zoo, animal rides, and horse and buggy in James J. Braddock North Hudson Park, adjacent to Bergenline Avenue.
Keeping it safe
Security was a major concern for the event, with thousands of people concentrated in one location. This year’s Winterfest took place only one day after a mass shooting in California left 14 dead and 21 wounded.
North Bergen police collaborated with the Hudson County Sheriff’s Department, the State Police, and other agencies to ensure the safety of residents. Sweeps of the area were conducted in advance. Social media was monitored online for any hint of terrorist threats.
In addition to regularly posted police, 84 members of the NBPD volunteered their time to provide additional security.
Officer Jessica Toro was attending the event for the first time. “She’s a newbie. We’re breaking her in,” said Officer Alfredo Echeverria, standing with her.
“It’s a good feeling, doing this,” said Toro.
Not far away, Tapas de Espana Restaurant was supplying free hot dogs to attendees and workers. “We try to do our part in supporting the community and making sure the workers get something to eat,” said Martin Antelo, a former student at North Bergen High School and the son of the restaurant’s owner. “They work a lot of hours today and sometimes they don’t get a lot to eat. We have one guy walk around with a box of hot dogs and offer them to the guys that can’t come over here.”
Tapas has been giving out free food at the event since 2008. Antelo’s friends and members of the football team manned the table handing out the dogs.
On the next block, girls from the high school soccer team sold homemade pastries and baked goods to raise funds. Emma Palacios and her mom Esther whipped up 50 cake pops and 150 empanadas overnight for sale at the event. The scrumptious chicken, cheese, beef, and pizza flavored empanadas sold out instantly at a buck a pop.
Volunteers for LEAD (Law Enforcement Against Drugs) and the Municipal Drug Alliance handed out about 1,200 free book bags and fruit snacks to a long line of residents while choruses from the schools entertained on a stage in front of a highly appreciative crowd.
Retired County Surrogate Donald DeLeo served as emcee for the event, with Sacco joining him onstage along with the town commissioners and other local dignitaries including Freeholder Anthony Vainieri and Sheriff Frank Schillari.
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Winterfest moves downtown
“This is great for the community,” said Jimmy Joshi, attending the mini-Winterfest on 14th Street with his daughter Riya, 2. “It’s a chance for everybody to get together and enjoy the holidays, get to know each other, find out who’s your neighbor. It brings more confidence in the community with the police and the fire department.”
The Joshis were waiting to have their photo taken with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Getting to uptown events could be a challenge, Joshi said. “It’s hard with the little one, especially in the cold. This is really convenient. She loves going out. Her poor little nose is red, but she still loves it.
“It’s something new,” said Mayor Sacco about the downtown events. “Julio Marenco was in charge, the commissioner from this area. It took a lot of work. What we wanted to do was bring the Winterfest and spirit of the holidays down to these areas.”
Marenco served as emcee for the 14th Street event, announcing the official guests from the stage. He has been a strong supporter of expanded services for the downtown area.
Katherine Gonzalez, fresh from painting faces at the uptown event, was keeping busy at the new event. The 12th grader, president of the environmental club, sat at a table handing out MUA calendars to residents.
Other volunteers distributed free hot chocolate and cotton candy, while police gave lanyards to passing kids. Larry Wainstein and his supporters wandered the crowd greeting residents, handing out free candy canes, and snapping photos.
Among the other attractions were a bouncy house and the ever-popular roasted corn stand from Braddock Park, mere days after going through 1,000 ears of corn at the uptown Winterfest.
Santa and his wife made an additional appearance at the 45th Street mini-Winterfest event, posing for professional photos inside the Nutrition Center, while kids ran around happily, played with assorted crafts, and gobbled down free popcorn.
Outside, attractions included a mechanical bull ride and a bouncy house. “This is a great way to meet your neighbors,” said Chirag Adhvaryu, attending with wife Mahatta, dad Nimesh, and one-and-a-half year old daughter Krishav. “Some people here have never met the mayor or commissioners. This is a good opportunity.”
Living just up the block, the family rarely attends events uptown. “This is very convenient for us,” said Chirag.
“We’re working to make things better,” said Sacco. “You should always keep having new ideas. You should never stay in one place. We did the Night Out Against Crime [at locations downtown] and the downtown library. A lot of these things we’re testing. We were very concerned about the mini-Winterfests. We didn’t know if anybody was going to come. And we found it to be a terrific success. I’m very happy with both mini-Winterfests.”