Niagara-on-the-Lakers and residents from across the province came out to celebrate the return of the Candlelight Stroll on Friday night.
More than a thousand people gathered outside of the Old Town courthouse to participate in one of NOTL’s definitive events and one of the finest holiday celebrations Canada has to offer.
“We come here almost every year and, honestly, it’s fabulous,” Richmond Hill resident Bruno Mariani said.
Mariani and his wife Ann have been driving down to NOTL for more than a decade just to take part in the annual stroll.
Bruno said the weather on Friday night made it the best event in years.
“It’s like summer out here compared to what we’ve been through here with snow and rain, for years it was like that,” he said.
“The first year we were here, now we’re talking maybe ten years ago, It was so cold, minus nine or minus 10. We said there was no way we were going to make it through this stroll.”
“We went straight to a pub and 15 minutes later it was packed.”
But on Friday night the weather was mild, the sky was clear and there was hardly a brush of wind.
Being able to participate in such a wonderful event at what is hopefully the tail end of the pandemic made it all the more special, Ann said.
“It’s truly like a celebration,” she said.
“We’re happy just to get back to a little bit of normality.”
“I think we appreciate it more,” Bruno said.
The couple said they would definitely be back for next year's stroll.
At the centre of the stage on Friday night was Virgil resident Devon Botbly, an 18-year-old who has a rare chromosome disorder that causes global delays and autistic tendencies.
He also just beat a cancer diagnosis.
His enthusiasm as he waited inside the courthouse to greet the crowd was palpable.
“That’s the most beautiful thing,” MPP Wayne Gates said as he watched Devon elbow bump everyone he could and exclaim how excited he was.
“Words can’t even express how grateful we are,” Dani Botbyl, Devon’s mother, said.
“From the bottom of our hearts, thank you to the whole community.”
Lord Mayor Betty Disero was on hand to celebrate the night with Devon.
She said when she first arrived at the courthouse there was no one outside and she was worried there was going to be a bad turnout for the event.
But when 6:45 p.m. struck and Devon and his family walked out of the front doors of the courthouse they were greeted by a veritable throng of more than a thousand people, many were chanting Devon’s name and holding up candles.
Devon, with the help of his family, got out of his wheelchair and walked down the steps of the courthouse to heartily wish everyone a “Merry Christmas.”
He was then taken to the back of the Court House to lead the stroll in a horse-drawn carriage. Last week, Devon mentioned to The Lake Report that one of his favourite horses who works in town is Cinderella.
Cinderella is exactly the horse that gently pulled Devon and his family through town that night.
“I’m just happy for Devon,” his younger sister Elise said.
“I’m thrilled, I’m thrilled that Devon is the recipient for the fundraising this year. He’s such a special boy, he’s very loving,” Disero said.
“Hopefully next year we’ll get to do it again.”
Not only was the turnout great, but events co-ordinator for the chamber Nicole Cripps was enthused that thousands of people were respecting COVID-19 safety guidelines.
“I love that the sea of people were all wearing their masks. That makes me feel so much better,” Cripps said.
There were a few less bands and choirs than during a usual year but music could be heard up and down Queen Street and around the neighbouring blocks.
There is no tally yet for the money raised through candle sales for the Botbyls, but chamber president Eduardo Lafforgue noted that “we sold a lot of candles.”
Lafforgue was happy that what he sees as one of NOTL’s most definitive events was able to happen this year.
“This is the most important thing. And even until last week there were people telling us that maybe we could not do it. So, we were scared,” he said.
But this year's Candlelight Stroll will surely go down as one of the best in NOTL’s history, Lafforgue said.