Children looking in awe at a live animal manger scene, the smell of candy-coated almonds roasting in a kettle, the sound of a horse-drawn carriage clopping down Woodward Avenue. And if it happens to snow? The entire scene becomes even more magical.
For 45 years, Noel Night has transformed Detroit’s Cultural Center on Woodward into a one-evening tuneup for the holidays. It’s a sort of community-wide open house, where cultural institutions including the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Michigan Science Center, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Detroit Historical Museum, and the Detroit Public Library open their doors for free.
It’s also a night where shoppers get a chance to buy handmade items from local artists, taste freshly made doughnuts, then finish the night off with a Salvation Army-led singalong.
Last year, Noel Night drew around 40,000 attendees, says Annmarie Borucki, a special projects manager for Midtown Detroit, Inc., the nonprofit community development organization that produces the event.
But Noel Night wasn’t always this big.
The first was in 1973, organized by an art group called Detroit Adventure. There were high school, university, and church choirs, and a “soundmobile” truck cruised Woodward playing Christmas carols. Around 6,000 people showed up.
Over the years, the number of participating venues has grown to top 100, along with performances by 200-plus music, theatre, and dance groups.
Midtown Detroit sponsors the event and helps some of the venues book performers. And it’s not all caroling groups or hand bell choirs (although those are popular). Past performances have included everything from the Cass Tech Marching Band to Thornetta Davis.
“We try to create elements of surprise,” Borucki says.
Among this year’s first-time Noel Night artists is Kier Jackson. He’ll be in the Detroit Public Library’s main auditorium performing his inspirational spoken word poetry over a fusion of jazz and neo-soul.
Noel Night will also feature recurring favorites like the “Live Animals of the Nativity” on the lawn of the Cathedral Church of St. Paul and candy at the Detroit Historical Society’s famed “Streets of Old Detroit.” Ice sculptures, first introduced in 1978, will again be made near the DIA.
Some cultural institutions say it’s their biggest night of the year. It’s also a boost for area galleries and gift shops. One such “shop” is only open on Noel Night: the annual College for Creative Studies Student and Alumni Art Sale.
While the horse-drawn carriage rides will return, this year, they’ll have to share the road. With the advent of the new QLine, Woodward will not be closed off for the event.
That means the main stage will shift, as well as the location for the Salvation Army community singalong. It will take place on Wayne State University’s campus at the southwest corner of Woodward and Warren Avenues.
The good news? Perhaps the QLine will ease some of the parking woes brought on by the event’s increased popularity. Organizers urge patrons to also use the Wayne State parking decks and the free shuttle.