VALLEJO – Downtown Vallejo will come alive Saturday, with characters even more diverse than the Vallejo community, from marching bands and traditional folk dances to Star Wars characters, animated robots, fire breathing dragons and the largest gathering of Burning Man vehicles outside of Burning Man.
Now in its 12th year, the Mad Hatter Holiday Festival and Parade offers an eclectic jumble of the traditional and the fantastical each year. The festival, in combination with other downtown events, is a day-long smorgasbord of activities with something for everyone.
The Mad Hatter Holiday Festival begins in front of the John F. Kennedy Library at 2 p.m. after the weekly farmer's market. It will include children's activities, Wonderland characters, live music, a food court, a beer garden and an interactive robotic Jurassic Park.
The parade will begin following a dance by the Vallejo Peace Project at the main stage on Georgia at Marin streets.
California State University Maritime Academy cadets, the Jesse Bethel High School marching band, and a variety of dance teams, costumed revelers and community groups will lead the parade. As twilight descends, illuminated art cars and flaming sculptures will light up the night.
The parade route ends at the mayor's tree lighting ceremony at 6 p.m. in the park behind the library. Revelers can then stroll to the waterfront promenade to watch Vallejo Yacht Club's lighted boat parade at 6:30 p.m.
A Holiday Craft Fair on Marin Street will be open from noon until the parade on Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m on Sunday. The fair, now in its second year, will also offer food and a wreath making workshop.
The Mad Hatter festival was launched in 2010 by Frank Malifrando, a fundraiser and event organizer, after he moved from Fairfield to Vallejo.
Malifrando attended Vallejo’s tree lighting ceremony at the waterfront and said he was disappointed to see only 300 people in attendance, while the smaller city of Fairfield drew 1,000 for their holiday parade. Marifrondo said he wanted to put on something “a little bit different and a lot more fun.”
To come up with a concept, Malifrando drew on childhood memories of visiting Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade, as well as the holiday film “Babes in Toyland,” where toy soldiers fight off monsters. Cal Maritime cadets stand in for toy soldiers, and lighted and flaming steampunk contraptions create an electric parade ambiance.
Malifrando sought a catchy name for the festival that’s easy to remember. With the steampunk flavor of the Burning Man art car parade floats he thought a Victorian Wonderland theme was a good fit, so he chose the Mad Hatter as the festival’s mascot.
Malifrando seeks a local Vallejo celebrity to be the festival’s Grand Marshal each year. This year’s Grand Marshal will be Vallejo native and hip hop artist DL da ARSUN. Former Grand Marshals include singer H.E.R. and Danny Thomas of Con Funk Shun. The first Grand Marshal was Vallejo native and Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Natalie Coughlin.
Longtime Burning Man contributors Kathy and Shannon O’Hare of Obtanium Works teamed up with Malifrando to help with the holiday festival. Their website describes their organization as “a group of tinkerers, gearheads, and steam bohemians who fabricate art out of repurposed industrial detritus.”
The O’ Hares tap their vast Northern California art community connections to bring illuminated mutant vehicles, kinetic contraptions and fire sculptures to the festival and parade. They try to mix up the lineup a little every year. The creators of the Golden Mean, a big snail car with flaming eye stalks, will dazzle Vallejo with their Serpent Twins this year. Some favorites, like the flame-shooting Rhino Redemption, are at every event.
Trevor Allen, a member of the city’s Commission on Culture and the Arts and author of “Working for the Mouse,” a play chronicling his time as a costumed character at Disneyland, has been a parade MC for about seven years. He said he likes that people from all walks of life with very different political and religious affiliations can come together to enjoy a holiday parade. “I love the fact that it's just people having a really good time,” Allen said.
Lisa Gutierrez-Wilson launched a women’s dance group to perform in the parade on behalf of Vallejo Peace Project six years ago. She said she wanted it to be a fun, easy experience for all, including women who had never danced. The troupe rehearses weekly starting in September.
Gutierrez-Wilson said she appreciates the women who struggle outside of their comfort zones and make a three-month commitment to the event. It has helped women during life- changing events like divorce and cancer treatment. “It's been a really fun thing for us as women and a support system,” Gutierrez-Wilson said.
Gutierrez-Wilson wore a costume of the famed Dr. Seuss character the Grinch the first year she participated, and was surprised that it made her an instant celebrity. The Grinch now makes appearances at toy drives and events across the city and will be at the Island of Misfit Toys toy giveaway on Dec. 23
Yuliana Preciado teaches traditional Mexican folk dance to kids aged three to 12. Her troupe, Ballet Folklorico Nekzayolin, first danced in the parade in 2021. Preciado said she’s glad to have the opportunity to teach the younger generation about their traditions and to expose them to the possibility that they can create their own events in the future. She said she's honored to be part of the parade and help community members of all races better understand her culture.
Solano AIDS Coalition founder Mario Saucedo, who hosts Vallejo’s Fiestas Patrias and Dia de los Muertos celebrations, will bring a flatbed float with a singer, participants dressed as La Catrina and Mad Hatter characters.
Saucedo said that the Mad Hatter Parade is one of Vallejo’s most important events because it brings people together from different parts of the North Bay. “We are living in one of the most diverse cities in the United States, so we are embracing everything,” Saucedo said.
“Building healthy communities together is one of the goals of everybody that creates events in this town,” Saucedo said. “I think the goal is to be together and create a beautiful relationship in between cultures”.
For more information about Mad Hatter visit https://www.hattervallejo.com/.
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THE VALLEJO SUN NEWSLETTER
Investigative reporting, regular updates, events and more
- Mad Hatter Holiday Festival
- Burning Man
- John F. Kennedy library
- California State University Maritime Academy
- Jesse Bethel High School
- Vallejo Yacht Club
- Frank Malifrando
- DL da ARSUN
- Con Funk Shun
- Danny Thomas
- Natalie Coughlin
- Kathy O'Hare
- Shannon O'Hare
- Obtainium Works
- Trevor Allen
- Commission on Culture and the Arts
- Lisa Guitierre-Wilson
- Vallejo Peace Project
- Yuliana Preciado
- Ballet Folklorico Nekzayolin
- Mario Saucedo
- Solano AIDS Coailition
Gretchen Zimmermann started volunteering with Vallejo Open Studios in 2010, launched the Vallejo Arts and Entertainment website in 2014 and creates mixed media sculpture at Mare Island Art Studios.
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