11 Canadian winter festivals to check out across the country
When a lobster crawl or a skate on the canal calls, the cold just can't stop us.
Canadians know how to have a good time when the mercury drops. From ice-sculpting to hair-freezing to, of course, a lobster crawl, cold-weather festivities are just what we need to chase the winter blues away. Here are 11 quintessentially Canadian events to check out near you, or for your winter travel bucket list.
Mummers Festival, St. Johns, Newfoundland (November-December)
Grab yer Mammy's bra, an old net curtain, a wooly hat — and any other costume items you can find around the house. This is the Mummers Festival — a Newfoundland Christmas tradition dating back more than 300 years. It's had a sordid past: the tradition was banned, fell out of favour and has only recently resurfaced. The best way to enjoy this festival is to take part in one of the workshops offered in the days leading up to the Mummers Parade; you can build an ugly stick or a bucket mask, as you learn about the culture and history of Newfoundland. Whatever garb you choose, one thing's for sure — during this time of year, if you knock on a door and ask, "Any mummers 'lowed in?" — the answer around the city of St. John's will always be "Yes, by!"
Winterfest at Canada's Wonderland, Vaughan, Ontario (November-December)
If your Canadian childhood memories include a summer day trip to Canada's Wonderland, then get ready for a cool surprise. This year, when the park closed for the season, Jack Frost and the Sugar Plum Fairy took over, creating one of Canada's newest winter festivals, Winterfest. With over one million lights, hundreds of thousands of decorations, live performances throughout the park — and yes, even some rides — regular visitors are reporting that when they walk through the gates, they hardly recognize the theme park. Winterfest increases its opening hours leading up to Christmas, then, just as magically as it appeared, Winterfest closes on December 31.
South Shore Lobster Crawl, Nova Scotia (February)
Locals on the south shore of Nova Scotia know that winter is the time to eat the freshest, juiciest lobster in the Maritimes, during lobster fishing season which runs from the last Monday of November until the 31st of May. The only glitch is that the arrival of fresh lobster at the dock happens to coincide with some very fresh Maritime weather. The solution? A month-long February festival that celebrates all the wonderful things that lobster has to offer. The South Shore Lobster Craw has lobster rolls, lobster beer, and even lobster fishing trips (yes, you can join a crew!), and on February 2, the chance to meet Lucy the prognosticating Lobster — Nova Scotia's answer to the groundhog.
Shivering Songs, Fredericton, New Brunswick (January-February)
Come in from the cold! Shivering Songs is a midwinter celebration of songwriting and storytelling, with songwriters, musicians and storytellers from all over North America performing in the warm nooks and crannies of Fredericton's coziest downtown spaces. Shivering Songs is actually a festival within a festival, scheduled to coincide with the final weekend of Frostival, Atlantic Canada's largest winter celebration.
Winterlude, Ottawa, Ontario (January-February)
Held over three weekends at the coldest time of year, Ottawa's Winterlude is one of Canada's best-known winter festivals, with events that include ice-carving competitions and demonstrations, an ice dragon boat festival, and a modified triathlon, where swim/bike/run is replaced by cross-country ski/skate/run. Skate the Rideau Canal Skateway, one of the official sites for the festival, and the world's largest naturally frozen skating rink at nearly 8 km long — equivalent in size to 90 Olympic-sized hockey rinks!
Carnaval de Québec, Québec City, Province of Québec (February)
The Carnaval de Québec recently lost its status as the world's largest winter festival, but it is certainly one of the oldest and well-developed large-scale winter festivals in the world. Each year, in late January or early February, Québec City hands over the keys to the city to the jolly, snowman mascot, Bonhomme who reigns as king of the festival for 10 days, wearing his warm red hat and distinctive ceinture fléchée, which is the arrow belt, or Métis Stash, and has intrinsic meaning and Métis history. Events at Carnaval include ice-sculpting, winter games, parades, and performances. For a thrill you will never forget during Carnaval, take a ride on the Dufferin Ice Slide. Constructed in 1884, this toboggan track overlooking the St. Lawrence River is both charmingly antique…and crazily steep.
Festival du Voyageur, Winnipeg, Manitoba (February)
With many similarities to the Quebec Winter Carnival, Winnipeg's 10-day long Festival du Voyageur offers a glimpse into the life of early 18th century Métis and Franco-Manitoban fur-traders. Warm your inner hunter with pea soup, tourtière, snow-pulled maple taffy, and caribou — a fortified wine with a serious kick. Possibly the quirkiest event at the Festival de Voyageur is the beard-growing contest, "home of the wildest, itchiest beards on the prairies." This hairy extravaganza is open to both men and women.
Devour! The Rockies, Jasper Park Lodge, Alberta (February)
There are plenty of winter festivals in the Rockies, but few as exclusive or delicious as Devour! The Canadian Rockies Film Festival, a satellite event of the world's largest food and film festival, Devour! A ticket to the Devour! The Rockies experience includes two nights' accommodation at the luxurious Jasper Park Lodge, a "cabin crawl," cooking demos, themed meals, and the main event: a five-course wine-paired cinema dinner. Go ahead, treat yourself. It's cold outside.
Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous, Whitehorse, Yukon (February)
Yukoners know how to party, and the proof is in the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous — a week-long winter festival packed full of daytime and nighttime fun. Events include axe-throwing, dog sledding, flourpacking and chainsaw chucking, while the entertainment features snow-shoe shufflers, and can-can dancers. But the best part of the festival is the contests, ranging from tattoo, lip sync, and hair-growing contests (yes, any hair goes), to a world-famous hair-freezing competition, at the nearby Takhini Hot Springs. Many of the events at the Sourdough Rendezvous are designed to raise money for local charities.
Snowking Festival, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (February-March)
The month-long Snowking Winter Festival is one of the Northwest Territories' most loved and well-attended cold weather events. The fun begins well before the festival opens with the construction of a life-sized ice and snow castle. The design, unique each year, always incorporates a thrilling two-storey ice slide and an auditorium where music concerts and other festival activities are held.
Toonik Tyme, Iqaluit, Nunavut (April)
Held in April, Toonik Tyme is one of the latest-held annual winter festivals in Canada, designed to welcome spring, and celebrate and preserve Inuit heritage and cultural knowledge — Innuit Qaujimajatuqangit The festival's name honours the Toonik people who lived in Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic about 1,000 years ago before the ancestors of present-day Inuit arrived. Events include seal-skinning contests, igloo-building, dog sled races, skijoring — a sport where a person on skis is pulled by a dog, music, and food experiences such as the IqualuEAT food market, and the city of Iqaluit Elder's Country food feast.
Helen Earley is a Halifax-based food and travel writer who recently added the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous to her bucket list. You can find her at www.helenearley.com