By Jim Sullivan
---- — Christmas carols will be sung and holiday sales will be rung in downtown Newburyport tomorrow night to kick off this year’s Invitation Nights.
“There will be a sense of magic in the air,” said president of the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce and Industry Ann Ormond. “We will have entertainment in the streets. Restaurants are open for business. The shop owners will put out treats and coffee and hot chocolate for you. It’s just a really welcoming kind of night.”
Almost all of the downtown Newburyport and Tannery businesses will take part in the Invitation Nights which have taken place on the first two Fridays in December each year for the past 30 years, in order to get the holiday season underway in style. This year’s festivities will begin tomorrow at 6 and run until 9 p.m., then it happens all over again next Friday.
“Other towns have Christmas walks, we have Invitation Nights,” said Brass Lyon owner Diane Gronbeck. “We serve hot cider and Christmas goodies and it’s just a happy, jolly kind of a time.”
Gronbeck has been in her Market Square location for the past eight years and said she usually sees about 800 visitors come into her nautical-themed gift shop each Invitation Night.
“It’s a great deal of local people,” Gronbeck said. “Plus, we draw a lot throughout the Merrimack Valley.”
“It’s sort of like a homecoming at football games,” said Ted Hochheiser, owner of Annie’s Gifts. “You get a lot of people who don’t always see their neighbors who come out and you see a lot of that. ‘How are you?’ They catch up with family and friends and all that.”
Hochheiser, who specializes in American handcraft as well as jewelry, has been in his Pleasant Street location since 1998 and said Invitation Nights have grown steadily over the years.
“We’re 1,000 square feet,” Hochheiser said of his shop. “We work in the front of the store and we have a door at the rear which is about 40 feet back and sometimes we can’t see the door, there are so many people in here. A lot of people come in and even if they don’t buy that night, they may see things that they come back for the next day or the next few days.”
A Christmas-themed shop itself, Partridge in a Bear Tree and the Candle Shoppe has been serving a champagne punch during Invitation Nights for the past 13 years, and they often has a line going out the door of its Market Square location, according to owner Kevin Riley.
“I’d say we serve over 1,000 cups of punch,” he said. “And that’s just the people we serve. I say we see 1,200-plus people (each night). My primary merchandise during the Christmas season is Christmas and candles, those are the roots of our business. There are not many stores that do Christmas all year-round so we make sure we do it right at Christmas time.”
And Invitation Nights continue to grow each year.
“Over the last few years, it has gotten even more festive,” Gronbeck said. “We’ve had some carolers outside from different churches and organizations. We’ve had carolers from the Boy Scouts in front of our shop and we’ve had choral groups. It’s really a nice, festive welcome to Christmas, welcome to the holidays and the merchants have a great time doing it.”
Even though Invitation Nights are a much-anticipated event in the Greater Newburyport area, Ormond has kept busy of late, making sure the word gets out as much as it can.
“We want to keep it top-of-the-line,” said Ormond. “People have a lot of choices of places to go to and we want them to pick Newburyport. We don’t take it for granted. We want people to know that we are a cultural and shopping destination.”