Des Moines Needs a Winter Festival

Brian Gongol


A few years ago, my wife and I took a most peculiar vacation: We went to Iceland in December. Now, you might think that's the act of a madman, but it turns out that Iceland in the wintertime isn't altogether different from Iowa at the same time of year. It's cold, and there's a fair amount of snow on the ground. But it's tolerable to anyone who dresses appropriately. Temperatures were mainly in the teens during our visit, and there were plenty of people outside and doing things in downtown Reykjavik on an ordinary Saturday night, including people ice skating around Ingolfur Square to the music of a live band.

In short, it seemed Icelanders knew to embrace the winter instead of hiding from it. And that's consistent with a 2015 article in Fast Company which pointed out that people in Nordic countries feel better when their communities embrace winter with festivals and special events, rather than hiding from the season.

That was what I had in mind when I argued last year that...

What Des Moines needs is a good late-January winter festival. Something big to look forward to during the coldest part of the year. Something almost exactly 6 months opposite on the calendar from the Iowa State Fair. An excuse to do something as a community that doesn't hinge on how well (or poorly) our local and college teams are doing in basketball or hockey.

Our time deep inside the Great Polar Vortex of 2019 has only reinforced this belief. Central Iowa doesn't have a big community event dedicated to celebrating the cold, rather than hiding from it. Sure, we have mid-winter specialty events like the Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival and the Winter Iowa Games, but we don't have anything intended as a community-wide party strictly for the sake of having one. Something like the St. Paul Winter Carnival in the Twin Cities, North Liberty's "Beat the Bitter", or the Cedarburg Winter Festival just north of Milwaukee.

We won't have wind chills of -46 every winter, but this is usually the coldest part of the year in Iowa. Someone should pick up the ball and run with it: We need a reason to look forward to the cold. It's time for Des Moines to have a dedicated winter festival. Let's have music, games to play, and winter foods to enjoy (perhaps a contest for the foods easiest to eat while wearing gloves?). More than anything, we -- the city of skywalks -- should force ourselves outside, together, and huddle around the warmth of some community.