Christmas in Laconia

Laconia goes all out for the holidays

For a taste of holiday tradition, stop in at Kellerhaus, where you can still find handmade candy canes, ribbon candy and other gifts. Courtesy photo

Lights in all 122 windows of its historic downtown mill, a gala parade with Santa, a magical Christmas village, caroling, snowmen and ribbon candy handmade as it was a century ago — Laconia knows how to celebrate Christmas.

At Kellerhaus, Laconia’s favorite candy store, Christmas traditions go back to Otto Keller’s shop in 1906, when he started making candy canes and ribbon candy. Today, Kellerhaus is among the very few that still make ribbon candy by hand, using a crimper manufactured in 1886. The ingredients — sugar, water and flavoring oils — may seem simple, but the process is far from it. After the first two are boiled to a thick consistency, the flavoring oil — and color for the stripes — is worked into the 300-degree mass before it’s stretched by hand into a long, paper-thin ribbon that’s fed into the vintage crimping machine. Kellerhaus handmade candy canes are just as old-fashioned — longer and thicker than the fragile machine-made canes found by the boxful in grocery stores.  

Laconia is the right home for these traditional Christmas candies, since for the whole month of December the entire town seems focused on the holidays. Although preparations have been underway for weeks, the season kicks off officially with the Light-Up Laconia Holiday Parade (this year on Sunday, November 25).  

Decorated floats, dancing elves and Santa Claus parade from Wyatt Park to Veterans Square, where Santa pulls the switch to light the tall community Christmas tree. This is the light-up signal for the whole town, as holiday lights illuminate the windows of the historic Busiel Mill and sparkle on businesses and homes throughout Laconia. Last year’s parade included a new feature: bells. Everyone was invited to dress in holiday colors and ring whatever bell was handy, from cow bells to strings of jingle bells.

More events continue throughout December. A Christmas village fills the Laconia Community Center and on weekends Santa and Mrs. Claus are there with their elves. Evening family programs bring kids and parents to make Christmas ornaments or decorate holiday cookies together. Carolers of all ages gather to serenade residents of the Taylor Retirement Community, and a snowman contest begins, lasting through February. (The Lakes Region Chamber of Commerce website has a complete list of activities and events.)

A lot more activities continue all winter to encourage families to get outdoors and embrace the season. There are free sledding parties under the lights on South Street, complete with bonfire and hot cocoa. The sledding hill is open all day until 10 p.m. and lighted at night. Skating is free all winter at Memorial Park and Opechee Park from noon to 10 p.m., with lights after 4 p.m. Public skating parties include bonfires, cookies and cocoa.

Even before the Light-Up Laconia parade, lights have been shining from the 122 windows of the historic Belknap Mill; candle lights there are switched on as donations are made to support the programs of the mill and its museum. Belknap Mill is the earliest hosiery factory in New England, built in 1823 and adapting itself to the changing industrial scenes of subsequent eras. Today, the Hosiery Museum shows the operation of the mill; many of the machines are still working, making socks that are sold in the gift shop.

The museum also features how the mills were an important part of life in Laconia, employing locals and immigrants and supporting related businesses. Between the actual machines and the exhibit boards, visitors learn how hosiery was made, and how manufacturing changed between 1823 and the mill’s closing in 1969. Circular knitting machines, for example, replaced weaving so they could manufacture seamless stockings in the mid 1800s. Other technical improvements include changing from water power to electricity at the time of the First World War.

The Power House explores this transition, along with the history of hydro power in New England and its role in the American Industrial Revolution. Working models show how waterwheels and turbines work, and visitors learn how the mill was able to send excess power generated here to supply the city with electricity. What is so unusual about this museum is that it incorporates the actual historic machines, and you can see how the gears, cogs, belts, cranks and flywheels worked. Imagine how fascinating this is to the fourth-graders who use the mill as part of their New Hampshire history program.

Along with socks manufactured here, the museum gift shop and Riverside Gallery sell books on the history of this and other mills, autographed works by local authors, original photography and handmade gifts and toys.

There’s a lot more to like about Laconia beyond Christmas and the historic mills. Chef Kevin Halligan of Local Eatery takes the nose-to-tail dining concept into the garden, with root-to-leaf renditions of vegetables — who knew that Brussels sprouts foliage and stems could be so subtly delicious? The menu changes every two weeks to reflect what’s currently ripening in local farms, and what the chef can’t use immediately he preserves in the “canning cellar” that lines one wall: big jars filled with corn relish, dill spears and rosy tomatoes. Every weekday brings its specials and Sunday’s burger-of-the-day comes with a free beer. The restaurant is in the former railway station on Veterans Square.

On Church Street, Karma Café is a cheery stop for breakfast or lunch. Half art gallery and half café, it’s best known for its sumptuous breakfast skillets and for the Irish Eggs Benedict. The corned beef hash is made in-house, not scooped from a can, and the eggs are done to perfection. French toast is another specialty, crunchy with walnut and filled with brie.

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