Hay wagon riders sing, celebrate under the stars

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                                                                    Photo by Anthony Caciopo                                                         

Bundled up for the cold-weather in an open-air hay wagon, riders lift their voices in song as they tour the streets of Palos Heights. Flashlights were needed to read the sheets of music in the dark.pirited holiday revelers rode through Palos Heights the evening of Dec. 8 aboard a hay wagon, singing Christmas carols and enjoying the sights of decorated houses and street scenes.

“It’s awesome,” said Duygu Omur-Ortac, seated on a bale of hay with her six-month-old son, Lucca, in the hands of her mother, Gunay Omur who rode a wooden bench facing her.

“It’s our first,” said Omur-Ortac of the ride through town. “I can’t wait until next year when it comes again.”

Ken and Deborah Massey climbed aboard the first of two wagon rides.

“It’s kind of a tradition for us,” said Ken.

“I wait for it every year,” said Deborah. “I signed up back in August.”

Newbies and well-seasoned waggoneers paid a small fee to travel through Palos Heights from Lake Katherine and back under the stars. Some people sang carols, some chatted and some…well, at least one…had an idea he knew would add to his enjoyment of the night out.

“I want some hot cocoa!” said Mike Panos, 9, at the front of the hay wagon behind the chugging John Deere tractor that pulled the riders.

Indeed, hot cocoa awaited Mike back at the Lake Katherine Nature Center, where riders warmed up after the ride and enjoyed a variety of German and Mexican snacks, as well as the opportunity to make crafts.

“We try to do something international (with food offerings),” said Barb Killelea. She, Marian Sinkus and Brenda George run education programs at Lake Katherine and are in charge of the annual hayrides and taste treats, an event they estimate has been taking place for at least 20 years.

“Last year, we did the Old West,” Killelea said of the cuisine. “One year, we roasted a goose, a Bob Cratchit–kind of thing,” referring to the fictional character in the Charles Dickens novel “A Christmas Carol.”

“We take two or three days because we have to find specialty places (for supplies) and to cook. It’s been in progress for about a month; getting the recipes, finding the crafts, etc.,” Killelea said.

After shaking off the cold and enjoying his hot cocoa, Mike Panos and his brother, Peter, 11, worked on crafts as their mother, Meredith, shared her thoughts about the hay wagon ride.

“I thought it was great,” she said. “It was so much fun. It was an experience and I’m glad we did it.”

Jerry Dolan, a Lake Katherine Nature Center volunteer, drove the tractor—which had a warm, enclosed cab, he didn’t mind pointing out—on an informal route through town that wound around. The trips traveled along 125th Street, 75th Avenue, 70th Avenue, 122nd Street, 123rd Street across Harlem Avenue and many other streets that boasted some well-decorated houses. On 122nd Street, motorists in a car stopped to greet the wagon-riders and exchange holiday greetings.

“Compared to the last couple years, more people were singing,” said co-organizer Brenda George who rode one of the wagons and distributed sheet music.

Not only are children interested in the wagon rides, but a lot of adults are, too, according to George.

“They’re craving that old-fashioned experience,” she said, “like the mom with the little baby. She’s trying to find something to start with her new one.

“Everything is so commercial, and this is something simple,” George said. “It’s teaching children that you can have fun doing simple things. It doesn’t have to be all bells and whistles.”

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