In her classic song "River," Joni Mitchell laments having to spend the holidays in a temperate climate. "But it don't snow here / it stays pretty green," she sings, adding that "I wish I had a river I could skate away on."
Mitchell isn't likely to stop in Laguna Beach this season, but if she did, she might find consolation in the Sawdust Art Festival's Winter Fantasy. The annual holiday event, which brings artists' booths and other merriment together under the eucalyptus trees at 935 Laguna Canyon Road, offers a touch of camaraderie in the cold — at least in the mind of Annette Doreng-Stearns, who has exhibited at Winter Fantasy for four years and will set up her booth again this week.
"I'm from Denmark originally, and so I'm used to the snow and the cold, and living in California, it can be a little bit difficult to get into the Christmas spirit or the holiday spirit," said Doreng-Stearns, whose work encompasses stone sculpture, jewelry and painting. "And so that's what we try to do here. Being in the canyon, it's actually a little bit colder, so it makes it a little bit more like, 'Oh, yeah, the holidays actually are coming.'"
The 24th annual event, which opens Saturday, features booths with artwork — holiday-themed and otherwise — by more than 175 participants. Over the next month, artisans will teach classes on painting, pincushion art and more, while Toys for Tots will conduct a charity drive every Sunday of the festival.
At 5:30 p.m. Saturday, the Sawdust grounds will kick off the festivities with an annual tradition: the community tree lighting ceremony, with Laguna Beach Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen on hand to flip the switch on the tree near the front entrance.
"This is like an opening night," said jeweler David Nelson. "We have all the kids and schools here, and the kids choir and all the parents are here. This whole town square will be shoulder-to-shoulder packed."
In terms of Winter Fantasy traditions, no one may be a better resource than Nelson, who has exhibited at the summer Sawdust Art Festival for 45 years and set up his booth at the winter festival since its inception. When Winter Fantasy began, Nelson said, it featured only about 70 artists, and he's seen changes as participation and attendance have grown.
One abandoned practice was the snow field, which once took up a section of the 3-acre grounds and featured actual snow propelled by a blower. According to Nelson and Jay Grant, the president of the Sawdust board, the festival abandoned the practice because the snow got trampled down by about noon each day and snowball fights led to a few hard feelings.
Now, the festival blows fake snow to get the same visual effect. A recent addition is the petting zoo, which this year will feature chickens, guinea pigs, rabbits and possibly goats. Children who want to tell Santa their Christmas wishes can do so, courtesy of an actor stationed in a house up front.
Unlike the summer festival, which requires participants to be residents of Laguna Beach, Winter Fantasy welcomes all. This year, the artist traveling the farthest is Tara Luther, who lives in Chicago and heard about the event from friends who exhibit at Sawdust.
"I do a lot of summer festivals, but the thing is, they're only weekends," said Luther, a painter. "So the opportunity to stay open and do weekend after weekend, it's just great exposure."
Any reason to spend the holidays in California instead of snowy Illinois?
"Right now, it's about 17 degrees here," Luther said. "So there's no festivals outdoors."
Take heart, Joni Mitchell.
If You Go
What: 24th Annual Winter Fantasy
Where: Sawdust Art Festival, 935 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, Nov. 22 through Dec. 21 (also open Friday, Nov. 28). Santa Claus on site from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Opening tree-lighting ceremony at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 22.
Cost: $7 for adults, $6 for seniors 65 and older, $4 for children 6 to 12, free for children 5 and under