Whistle Stop Christmas, an annual Cleburne Chamber of Commerce Christmas extravaganza, enters its 22nd year with a change of venue planned. The event for the first time will not stage at Hulen Park but rather at Market Square in downtown Cleburne.
Whistle Stop’s original Nov. 19 planned opening remains up in the air for now, chamber President Cathy Marchel said.
Officials, on the advice of attorneys representing the city, ordered the move in light of a pending lawsuit against the city. The family of Jordan Diaz, 16, filed suit in the 413th District Court earlier this month alleging negligence on the city’s part.
“We are planning, for now, festivities as scheduled on Dec. 7, the day of the Christmas parade,” Marchel said. “Whether we’ll be able to do the tree lighting on Nov. 19 as originally planned or what will have to wait until the night of the Christmas parade, we’re still figuring all that out.
“It’s not as simple as plugging lights into a plug. There are a lot of logistics to work through. But I will say that even given the short time period we have to get everything planned with the location change we all understand how passionate so many people are about Whistle Stop and we’re going to do our best to ensure this is another special Christmas in Cleburne.”
Marchel said it’s too early to know whether Whistle Stop will return to Hulen Park in 2019 or in subsequent years.
Cleburne Mayor Scott Cain said that though the venue change will take a bit of getting used to he nonetheless expects great things from this year’s edition of Whistle Stop.
“I am disappointed that allegations made in a lawsuit by a lawyer will prevent a great community event like Whistle Stop from continuing this year in Hulen Park,” Cain said. “But, this community has shown tenacity in overcoming adversity in the past and I know the chamber and volunteers will make the most of it and present a first class Whistle Stop at Market Square.
“The Christmas spirit is about family and friends no matter where you are. This community favorite event will carry on, albeit in a little different format and a different location. I look forward to seeing this new format.”
The “unanticipated shift” to Market Square brings both “difficult challenges” and “unique opportunities,” Marchel said.
The challenges include re-assessing light displays, testing new activities and exploring different venues, she said.
Many Whistle Stop traditions will remain, Marchel said, including the annual Christmas parade, tree lighting and choir performances.
“Santa will definitely be there,” Marchel said. “You can’t have Christmas without Santa. He’ll be in the parade, of course, but also in Market Square at various times.”
The fate of other Whistle Stop mainstays such as carriage and train rides, however, remain to be determined for now, Marchel said.
“Whistle Stop has always been about bringing families and friends together to celebrate Christmas and this move doesn’t change any of that,” Marchel said. “While it is unfortunate recent events require us to change plans, we will continue to evolve the event to create a uniquely Cleburne tradition that sparks excitement in the community and region.”
A major tourist draw for Cleburne, Whistle Stop in previous years attracted thousands to the park and an estimated 250,000 cars passing by on Westhill Drive each Christmas season to view the 3.5 million Christmas lights covering the park’s 12 acres.
That said, organizers promise “new twists and surprises” this year and a “classic Christmas celebration” at Market Square.
“We’re working hard to create an experience that makes visitors feel like they are in the Christmas they see in movies and TV,” Cleburne Parks and Recreation Director Aaron Dobson said. “That means lights, colors, decorations and interactions that create a Norman Rockwall painting atmosphere.”
Market Square, unlike Hulen Park, fronts a highway. Marchel said safety and parking concerns are being taken into consideration and will be addressed. Although nothing has been determined at this point, parking was available at the nearby Guinn Justice Center as was shuttle service during previous summer concert events at Market Square.
“There are a lot of things we still have to work out but we’ll get them done and get information out to the public as soon as we get it,” Marchel said. “The main thing is we’re going to have a great Christmas in Cleburne. The chamber is going to work as always to promote Whistle Stop, the parade and the Candlewalk Tour of Homes on Dec. 8 as well as Christmas events at Songbird Live and Plaza Theatre.
“We want to make this a wonderful Christmas in Cleburne and we’re encouraging all our businesses to decorate their storefront windows and just decorate Cleburne in general.”
Diaz received a shock on July 1 at the park after he touched a city light pole while playing on the tennis court.
“As a proximate result of the electrocution, catastrophic injuries were inflicted on Jordan Diaz,” according to the filing. “The above referenced accident was proximately caused by the city of Cleburne’s negligence.”
Diaz was transported to Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Cleburne and subsequently flown to Parkland Memorial Hospital.
Cleburne City Manager Steve Polasek, on Aug. 6, said that Diaz, from what he’s heard, appears to be doing well and improving but said he cannot otherwise discuss the case given that it’s an ongoing legal matter.
Long standing tradition
The arrival of an accidental double order of Christmas lights to Ben Franklin Crafts — now A Little Ben’s — in 1996 inspired Whistle Stop’s creation. Then owner Rebecca Roe, while visiting friends in Marble Falls, fell in love with the lights and decorations displayed in that town each Christmas.
If in Marble Falls, why not in Cleburne too, Roe thought.
Roe used the extra lights to decorate Hulen Park that year and what began as a few strings of lights and a quaint event quickly grew into a major Cleburne holiday tradition and a huge display of Christmas decoration.