Ithaca’s Winter Festival

Photo by Bruce Barber

By Downtown Ithaca Alliance staff


Late December in the Finger Lakes – it’s a veritable winter wonderland of glistening trees, gleaming waterfalls and glossy lakes.

It’s also when downtown Ithaca holds its beloved Winter Festival – two weeks of winter revelry that culminate in a nationally-sanctioned ice carving competition. The 6th annual Ithaca Winter Festival will take place November 28 through December 13, 2015.

The Ithaca Commons pedestrian mall will be transformed into a crystalline dreamworld, dotted with scores of exquisitely detailed ice sculptures of all shapes and sizes. “The whole package is a one-of-a-kind Upstate New York experience,” says Gary Ferguson, executive director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance.

Winter Festival starts on Small Business Saturday, a celebration of the 150-plus unique, independently-owned stores and restaurants within the walkable three-block downtown district. Next is the arrival of Santa and his merry band of elves. The entire polar contingent rappels down a four-story building onto the Commons and joins in on gingerbread crafts, photo sessions and fun seasonal activities for the whole family.

The ice festivities kick off with a series of demonstration carvings and the creation of a 12-foot bar and lounge, where visitors can sit on solid-ice thrones (cushioned for comfort), have a steaming hot chocolate or savor local beer and wine, and watch fire dancers and expert ice carvers. Next, the Ice Wars competition begins with the Speed Carving event, when some of America’s finest ice carvers go head-to-head in a race against the clock to complete a sculpture in just under 20 minutes, with limited tools.

The second Ice Wars event is the Carve and Deliver competition, where master carvers are given three hours to plan and execute an intricate large-scale piece and then move it – very, very carefully – to a display area where it will be judged by attendees and a professional panel. Last year, the top-ranked creations were a fantastical finned merman, a Kafkaesque praying mantis and a night owl taking wing. Each stood head and shoulders above its sculptor. In recent years, visitors saw elaborate renderings of eerily translucent giant squid, prancing antelopes, and a larger-than-life housecat gazing intently into an out-of-reach fishbowl.

“It’s so energizing to see artisans turn what we all hate in the dead of winter – cold and ice – into remarkable, ephemeral works of art,” says Eldred Harris, a longtime Ithaca resident. And tourists agree. “The talent on display at Ice Wars is amazing,” says Trai Sang of Atlantic County, New Jersey. “The ice bar is a unique, seasonal way to spend time on the Commons. It’s great to find such joy during the cold winter.”

Other Winter Festival events include Chanukah celebrations and the annual Chowder Cook-off, where festivalgoers sample piping hot chowders and bisques to determine which of the area’s top chefs is crowned Chowdercup Champion.

In short, if you’re looking for a great place for holiday shopping, gourmet food and drink, and a unique opportunity to watch first-class artisans in action, look no further than downtown Ithaca.

This year’s Winter Festival is sponsored by the Tompkins County Tourism program and The Ice Farm of Auburn, New York. For a complete schedule of events, visit

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