PHOENIXVILLE — In what has become a cherished celebration of Phoenixville’s rebirth, a giant wooden phoenix rose from the ashes and burned brightly in front of a large crowd in Veteran’s Park.
Marking the Firebird Festival’s 16th year, the annual event drew thousands of spectators from all over region Saturday.
Held each December, the renowned festival began as a way to acknowledge the town’s revitalization and to welcome the approaching winter solstice. While the festival continues to grow each year, it continues to hold its mission of fostering local artistic and creative talent to enhance the cultural life of Phoenixville.
Celebrations began in the afternoon with an eclectic variety of musicians, dancers and entertainers all over the borough. New this year was the addition of more family-friendly activities set up in Veteran’s Field, including two bouncy castles and animals from the Elmwood Park Zoo.
Multiple vendors booths were set up around the field with unique artwork, food, and handmade wares. Mini phoenix sculptures were also burned in the afternoon for children to enjoy.
“I feel my role is to be the holder of the space,” said festival organizer Henrik Stubbe Teglbjaerg. “When you hold a space, you can create a lot of magic. That is what is so beautiful about this festival, a lot of things can be attached to it. I’m always open to people who want to contribute. We can find a way they can be added. That is how the parade came about.”
The Firebird Parade, complete with a drum circle and colorfully adorned dancers, carried the torch to light the phoenix, leading the procession from Bridge Street up the Schuylkill River Trail.
Fire spinners continued to entertain the crowd, as well as a live Doors cover band which played from a stage set up near the bird. Torches lit the giant phoenix at 8 p.m. and thousands watched as flames from the epic blaze climb high into the night sky.
“The festival was embraced by Phoenixville because it fits so well with the rejuvenation of our town after the steel mill disappeared. When the Colonial Theatre came back and the Arts Center, we were part of that movement. It really is about the rebirth of our town,” said Teglbjaerg. “The festival is not just the ‘day of.’ It is a process of creativity, of how are we going to do this? We run into a lot of obstacles and we surpass them by trusting that we will figure it out.”
For months, Teglbjaerg worked with a dedicated team of volunteers who helped build the large phoenix that, this year, had vertically moving wings. Construction began in September and continued each week on the massive bird that measured 25-feet high, 55-feet long and 25-feet wide. The design included an 18-foot-by-22-foot deck on top of the bird.
This year’s phoenix was designed by Phoenixville resident, Derek Wieneke, who helped build the bird in previous years.
After visiting a Viking exhibit at the Franklin Institute, Wieneke was inspired to design the bird in the shape of a Viking ship. The design allowed plenty of space for people to be on top of the bird safely, such as the fire spinners. The construction was so strong that the crew of volunteers had a Thanksgiving meal on top of the bird in late November.
“I got really inspired by a pheasant ship I saw at the Viking exhibit. It had all these ornate headpieces and a big curly tail that looked like a dinosaur. We got oak palettes and they fit the shape that I’d designed. We realized the wood was a very stubborn oak, just like Henrik and like me. So, we named it Staðlyndr Eik which is Old Norse for ‘stubborn oak,’” Wieneke said.
“Henrik does something very special in that he holds a space for everybody to come. There’s no segregation. Everything is creativity here. I’ve been coming to help build for seven years. No matter what I was doing in my life, I would be here on the day of or a few weeks prior to help build. The festival was always about letting go,” he added.
Rick Rohbough, who lives in Skippack and works in Phoenixville, also helped build the phoenix and assist the crew with what was needed for his second year. He noted how the festival was a great way to network within the community on multiple levels.
“Last year I came out here and met Henrik and was inspired by him and the whole idea of the festival. What it symbolizes is great. I think everybody is capable of a rebirth and renewal. His whole philosophy of holding the space for people to be creative and be part of the community is what it’s all about,” said Rohbough.
Along with clay birds that are placed inside the phoenix to be fired during the burn, new this year was the addition of a memorial shelf. People could place mementos of loved ones inside the phoenix to burned, as a way of honoring them and letting go.
Teglbjaerg noted participation in Firebird related projects across the community including the Phoenixville Senior Center, Phoenixville Area High School, and the Phoenixville Jaycees who helped light the trail up to Veteran’s Park. Additionally, dozens of Phoenixville businesses participated in Firebird the Festival raffle with their customers. Raffle winners carried the torches in the parade to light the bird.