by Ann M. Colford

Everyone thinks of Christmas as a holiday for children, but that sentiment generally does not hold true for New Year's Eve. For much of the last century, New Year's Eve has been considered an evening of wild excesses and drunken debauchery -- certainly not an evening to share with the little ones.

But times change and cultural trends shift. Beginning with the inaugural First Night celebration in Boston 25 years ago, all First Nights have been family-oriented events, alcohol-free and with an emphasis on the arts. From that initial vision, more than 200 First Night events have sprung up all over the world, as the idea of arts-based celebrating for people of all ages has gained acceptance. Like those other 200-plus events, First Night Spokane promises fun for revelers young and old.

"The event is really a celebration of the visual and performing arts," says Larry Schoonover, who's coordinating the Children's Festival portion of First Night Spokane. "We tried to keep the performances family- and youth-oriented."

Following the First Night model, events are designed to blur the distinctions between observers and performers. Everyone is a participant, and the kids' events are no exception, starting with a free pre-Festival event in the afternoon, says Schoonover, who is also Director of Exhibits and Programs at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.

"KPBX stepped forward and said they'd do a Kids' Concert to kick off the Children's Festival," he says. The concert, which takes place at 2 pm in the German-American Hall at 25 West Third, features the Spokane Youth Orchestra, directed by Verne Windham, playing a variety of waltzes while inviting children and their parents to dance. Children's Festival events then begin in earnest at 4 pm and run right up until the Procession of Magical Beings at 6 pm.

"We wanted interactive projects that would prepare people for the procession, which has a theme of 'Light Up The Night,' " Schoonover explains.

The Children's Museum is hosting the "Light Up The Night" glowstick project, where children of all ages can make their own glowsticks for use in the procession, with entertainment provided by Tiny the Clown. But that's just the beginning.

"The Children's Festival isn't just at the Children's Museum," he says. "There's a whole plethora of activities that individuals can both observe and participate in.

"We have two visual artists, Debbie Baxter and Melodie Hall, who are working on projects to make woodblock prints and scrapbooking," he explains. They will be in the River Park Square Atrium area, along with Express Theater Northwest, the Riverdell Players' live chess game, and several youth dance organizations.

More creative activities are planned at the Art At Work gallery on Post Street, right across from the Children's Museum, where Idaho artist Helen Grainger Wilson will lead children through the process of creating their own First Night banners for the procession. The New Criterion Banjo Orchestra and the Pipkin Family Puppet Theatre will take turns entertaining all those engaged in creative pursuits. And for those who prefer to observe, there's plenty of artwork on display in the gallery.

Historically, times of transition -- like the moment when the old year becomes the new -- have inspired rituals, superstitions and magical beliefs, so it's no surprise that magic is a part of First Night Spokane. A section of the Burlington Coat Factory building is being transformed into the Magic Room, where children and adults can both observe and take part in all manner of magical activities.

Magician Dick Frost, who has been awarded membership in the Order of Merlin by the International Brotherhood of Magicians, holds court beginning at 4 pm, accompanied by his pals, Mr. Longears and Blue Bear. And for those who wish to conjure up their own inner Harry Potter, there's no need to find your way to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters for the Hogwarts Express; just make your way to the Magic Room for entry into the Hogmany School of Magic. No word on whether there will be a Sorting Hat, but local tutors will be on hand with some beginning lessons in illusion.

The Celtic Nots and the Haran Irish Dancers lend a Celtic air to the festivities over in the former Lamonts building on Riverside, while across the street, Deborah's Jump Rope Academy raises heartbeats upstairs in the STA Plaza. Team coach Deborah Wittwer leads Spokane's only jump rope team through its award-winning paces starting at 4 pm. The team has been featured on ESPN and represents Spokane and Washington at national competitions. At 5 pm in the plaza, the Gravity Busters, a group of jugglers in grades four to seven, hit the stage to juggle all manner of objects. Later, these kids from Coeur d'Alene will offer beginning jugglers the chance to try their hands with beanbags. And all of the activities at STA Plaza take place under the First Night banner created by artist Louise Kodis.

While this is the first time for First Night in Spokane, Larry Schoonover is excited about the programs and activities lined up. "It's an entertainment bargain, when you consider all you can get for the cost of a button," he says. "We've tried to put together a series of performers who can relate to youth. The Children's Festival is a precursor to the evening activities. It's a great way to start First Night Spokane and get people excited about what an incredible arts community we have here."

Music Finds a Way: The Spokane Symphony @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Jan. 10
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