This year's Winter Carnival in St. Paul promises a special feature -- some might say essential -- that was in short supply at this time last January: winter.
With freezing weather forecast this week, it looks like conditions will be frosty enough to promise a suitably icy festival, which kicks off Thursday night with the Moon Glow pedestrian parade and glides into a 10-day panorama that runs the gamut from cabaret to Mozart, from hot chocolate to winter ale.
And no worries about snow this time. Even if we don't get a flake during the festival, which seems unlikely, snow-making equipment will be ready to ensure that snow sculptors at the State Fairgrounds won't be hostage to the brown conditions that forced the contest's cancellation last year.
This year's carnival coincides with the adrenaline-charged Red Bull Crashed Ice race down a steep and winding track on Cathedral Hill. The competition, which runs Thursday through Saturday, drew tens of thousands of spectators last year and promises to bolster crowds already headed downtown for carnival events.
"It's family, it's fun, it's affordable," said Beth Pinkney, in her fifth year as president and CEO of the carnival and its parent, the St. Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation. "We have 60 different events. There really is something for everybody."
Parades and ice carving
This will be the 127th anniversary of the first carnival, making it the oldest winter festival in the United States and one of the best ones, too, according to recent pieces in National Geographic and AARP's magazine.
It all began in 1886 when St. Paul business leaders, fuming over Eastern news reports that Minnesota wasn't fit to live in, decided to double down on their growing city and show those elitists a thing or two about having fun in winter.
They built a 106-foot-high ice palace near downtown and developed a legend to go with it, all about an age-old turf war between wintry King Boreas and fire god Vulcanus Rex for lordship over St. Paul. Vulcanus and his Krewe overtake Boreas in the end, promising the warmth of summer until Boreas returns again.
"It's an event that put St. Paul on the map throughout the country," Pinkney said.
The carnival happens today thanks to the work of 1,500 active volunteers, 60 sponsoring groups and a budget of about $700,000. The only public money is a $20,000 grant from the city's STAR sales tax program, and Pinkney is the only carnival official who draws a salary.
This year's King Boreas and the Queen of the Snows will be crowned, along with other members of the royal family, Friday evening in the Grand Ballroom at RiverCentre.
There are two new events: Educational Green Day on Saturday in Rice Park, sponsored by Xcel Energy, about energy efficiency; and a Happy Birthday Amadeus concert Sunday at Landmark Center, featuring Mozart performances by the St. Paul Civic Orchestra and the Minnesota Chorale.
This weekend, carnival-goers can watch the Grande Day Parade, work jigsaw puzzles at Landmark Center, sip hot chocolate at the St. Paul Hotel and cheer sled-dog teams at Bald Eagle Lake. Meanwhile, ice carvers will be hard at work on their creations in Rice Park.
The popular Beer Dabbler event, featuring more than 300 beers from more than 100 brewers, will be held Saturday at the Farmers Market in Lowertown. But tickets are necessary, and it may already be sold out.
The carnival's closing weekend, Feb. 1-3, will feature a boys' hockey tournament at the State Fairgrounds, a "Queens and Fire and Ice" drag show at the Lowry Lab Theater, the Torchlight Parade and fireworks over the Mississippi River.
About 300,000 people attended carnival events last year, Pinkney said. Although the mild temperatures forced the cancellation of snow-based events such as the snow sculpture contest and sled-dog races, the carnival drew record numbers for the Securian winter run -- which offers 5K, 10K and half-marathon races -- and the three parades, she said.
There's a charge for some events, but so many are free or have such a minimal fee that the carnival offers affordable entertainment for everyone, Pinkney said. A family of six can go to Rice Park, watch the ice carvers and the parade and take in the Kid's Day events at Landmark Center, she said, and pay only for parking and hot chocolate.
"It's a full day and it's under $20," she said.
Kevin Duchschere • 651-925-5035