Two local communities will kick off the spring festival season on Saturday, May 17: McLean Day will celebrate its 99th year, and Chantilly Day its third.
Both these events, one built on years of tradition and one just getting off the ground, show that such festivals are not relics of the past but hold continued relevance for their communities.
Spring festival season brings six festivals to Fairfax County in a four-week span. Both ViVa! Vienna! on Memorial Day weekend, and Herndon Festival the following Thursday-Sunday, take place in those town’s historic downtown districts.
However, neither McLean nor Chantilly, which are not towns but “census-designated places,” has a central hub around which to congregate. Rather, both are defined by the major thoroughfares that cut through their landscape and the cloverleafs and intersections that mark their boundaries.
“McLean is a crossroads to get from one place to another,” said Sam Roberts, who has organized McLean Day for 25 years. “It has no mayor, no city council. So it needs something that people can identify as theirs.”
McLean Day’s history extends back to 1915, when it started as a fundraiser for the Franklin Sherman School. The school still serves the area, though in a different location, as a Fairfax County elementary school, and the festival too continues to serve the populace.
Sabrina Anwah, the community center’s director of communications, said McLean Day has gone through many different iterations since that first festival, as different community organizations traded sponsorship of the event before the McLean Community Center took over in 1975.
Anwah noted that the first event included a jousting tournament, adding with a laugh: “We still have horses at McLean Day. They’re just pony rides now.”
When Roberts started as the community center’s special events coordinator in 1989, McLean Day had become a decidedly more humble event than in its jousting days.
The festival was held on the grounds of the community center and received about 5,000 visitors each year. The local Rotary Club provided food, and volunteers blew up balloons as favors for children.
The community center wanted Roberts to expand the event to foster community spirit and highlight McLean businesses and organizations, so he started looking for business partnerships.
Now, McLean Day maintains a waiting list for its 120 exhibitor booths, and about 15,000 people on average come to browse the business and craft area and to take part in carnival games and rides. The festival is free, though visitors must purchase an all-day pass if they want to take advantage of the six or seven large carnival rides.
McLean Day costs the McLean Community Center $15,000 to 20,000 annually, Roberts estimated. The community center is funded through a local real estate tax which generates more than $5 million each year.
“This is our gift to the community,” Roberts said. “We provide that sense of community, that hometown feeling.”
That feeling is what the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce hopes to generate with Chantilly Day, which it started in 2012.
“One of the big gaps we saw in the Chantilly area was that there wasn’t anything celebrating how we live our lives here,” DRCC president Eileen Curtis said.
Chantilly Day includes a business expo, an entertainment stage, a “Taste of Chantilly” section to highlight local restaurants and a kids’ area featuring games, activities and a space shuttle moon bounce.
Though sponsors cover many expenses, including the location in Sully Plaza shopping center, the Chamber of Commerce does take on the costs not covered by sponsors as an investment in local businesses.
“Having the business expo, which is really our main focus of the event, lets people see what’s going on in their backyards,” said Mark Beeson, co-chair of the DRCC’s Chantilly Day planning committee. “Chantilly doesn’t have a downtown area, so I think what this does is it helps put Chantilly on the map.”