How to Stage a Heritage Celebration

Why stage a heritage celebration?

Every community, regardless of its size, has a history of which it can be proud. A journey into the background of a community can be more than just a review of faded photographs and yellowed documents. Remembrances of times past can be brought to life by staging a heritage celebration. In a fun-filled atmosphere, surrounded by old friends, citizens can pay tribute to the founders of their community.

A festivity of this nature, by focusing on the community's identify, allows the younger generations to gain an appreciation of local history, and the senior generation an opportunity to renew its bonds with the past. Cohesiveness and local pride are strengthened by the experience. Understanding between people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and different age and social groups is promoted by an event which brings them all together in celebration of their community's past.

Activities connected with heritage celebrations may include collecting oral histories, and researching archival documents to produce a written record of the community's development. This will prove valuable to local residents and historians. Other undertakings associated with staging the event, such as revitalizing an historic neighbourhood, creating new public facilities and promoting local crafts, may result in increased tourism, while permanently benefitting the community.

Organizing a successful event, however, will require careful planning and the overcoming of many obstacles. This booklet is intended to provide a step-by-step guideline on how any community could engage in the challenging experience of planning and staging a heritage event.

Where to begin

The idea to stage a commemorative event may originate with an individual, a community club or organization, or the local municipal council. Once the idea has been planted, the next step will be to decide what kind of event would be appropriate. Here it would be useful to consult with neighbouring communities who have already staged such an event and might be able to offer advice based on first-hand experience.

An informal community meeting would provide an opportunity for the exchange of ideas and suggestions. When organizing the public meeting, care should be taken to publicize the event by informing the media as well as local citizens. At the meeting, the following issues should be discussed:

Type of Event

Heritage celebrations fall into two categories: a special event, or a festival.

A special event focuses on one significant aspect of the community's history. Good examples of a special event area an anniversary celebration, the dedication of a monument or a commemorative plaque, or the official opening of a restored structure. All activities in this case centre on an official ceremony. Consideration should be given to holding the celebration in conjunction with other happenings in the community so those events will complement one another. Usually this kind of festivity lasts a few hours or a day, depending upon its importance.

A special event is a one-time celebration, not repeated annually. If well-planned and successful, it creates an interest in local history, an awareness of heritage preservation and a desire for other heritage festivities. Two advantages of a special event are that it is fairly easy to plan and can be organized at minimal cost.

The second category of heritage events is a festival. It generally takes place over a longer period of time and focuses on broader themes such as a "Pow-Wow", "Pioneer Days" or "Homecoming". A festival is an excellent means of raising the community's profile. Occasionally the festivity relates to a specific ethnic or cultural celebration. Sometimes its theme varies from year to year, depending upon which aspect of the community's heritage is emphasized.

A festival requires a considerable amount of time to organize, as well as a large number of volunteers. Planning, therefore, should begin at least one year in advance. Once again it would be wise to consult with other communities that have already staged an event. The experiences of one year may help improve subsequent celebrations, should the festival become an annual one.

Scope of the Event

Before an event can be planned, a careful and detailed analysis of the available resources in the community should be made. All these will include volunteer, physical, and financial resources.

  1. Volunteers - It is important to judge whether the majority of local residents will be supportive and enthusiastic about the planned celebration. How many volunteers will be willing to help? The answer to this question will be provided in part by the public response at an organizational meeting.

    The number of volunteer hours required to launch a successful event such as a "homecoming" is staggering, so the importance of accurately judging the expected response of local citizens cannot be minimized. If the initial response proves low, it may be necessary to scale down the plans proportionately or risk overloading the available volunteers. Often, however, the initial public response is slow, but with proper publicizing of the event, the army of volunteers should swell as momentum and enthusiasm grows.

  2. Physical Resources - Another important consideration will be the physical requirements of the event. Consideration must be given to the amount of space needed for displays, demonstrations, receptions or performances. What facilities will be available for food preparation? If more than a one-day event is planned, how could overnight accommodation be arranged? Will there be facilities available for alternate plans? Answers to these questions must be considered.

  3. Financial Resources - Logically, a large budget will allow flexibility in planning. Therefore, financial support from local residents, the business community and Local Government will be essential. Donations may be requested. Activities such as dances, raffles, sporting events, bake and craft sales could also serve as a source of funds.

    Financial support may also be solicited from government or heritage agencies. The federal government, through the Department of the Secretary of State, provides assistance for celebrations held in conjunction with Canada Day, as well as events marking significant anniversaries in Canadian history. Manitoba Sport, Culture and Heritage offers financial assistance for a variety of heritage projects and events. A useful guide is the Grants and Resources Manual which can be accessed on line ( and is also available at your local library. It is important to obtain information concerning eligibility from all agencies as soon as possible. This will allow organizers sufficient time to have grant applications reviewed before finalizing a budget for the event.

  4. Time Factor - The more time allowed for planning an event, the better the outcome. It must be stressed again that a special event will usually require several months to organize, and a festival at least one year.

    Enough time should be allotted to plan carefully for activities, perform research, create artwork and perhaps, construct necessary facilities. Most essential, however, will be the need to allot sufficient time to promote the upcoming event properly. In the case of a "Homecoming", former citizens must be located and contacted, either by letter or by placing advertisements in newspapers across the country.

    If the festival is not an anniversary, a date will have to be chosen which does no conflict with any other major activity occurring in the vicinity and which is suitable to the greatest number of people. Occasionally it is possible to amalgamate a neighbouring event with the celebration, thus taking advantage of the opportunity for saving money by combining volunteer efforts and promotional activities.

How to plan the event

Once the problems of time and resources have been considered and successfully resolved, the organizers can then decide where the event should be staged and how long it should last. Answers to these basic questions will allow the next stage of planning to begin. At this point all work passes to the committee stage.

Planning Committee and Subcommittees

Overall planning of the event should be coordinated by a central planning committee whose membership will be determined by the size of the community and the scope of the event. While the planning committee should reflect the social and ethnic composition of the community, it should be kept reasonably small, since large committees usually do not function efficiently. Members with a wide variety of talents, interests and contacts will be a valuable asset.

The nucleus of the committee should be formed of people with an interest in local history. While these may include members of historical societies and museum boards, historians, teachers, Native elders, media representatives or long-time residents, enthusiastic amateurs and young people should not be overlooked. Individuals from as many diverse groups as possible should be included. Involvement by Municipal Government councillors, administrators and employees should also be encouraged since these people usually are knowledgeable about the physical resources of the area. Such involvement may be as an advisory group rather than as committee members, thus keeping committees at a workable size.

The detailed planning of the event can best be handled by specific subcommittees which should report to the central committee. Depending upon the magnitude of the event, subcommittees will be needed for the following areas of concern: publicity, finance, program, facilities and services, refreshments, accommodations and long-range planning. Each subcommittee should be given a written outline clearly stating its responsibilities and its supervisor.


The publicity committee will be responsible for all promotion of the event. It will sponsor news releases, posters, radio and television commercials, press conferences and displays.

Since promotion of any event is crucial to its success, it is imperative that this committee be well-organized and active, and that it possess a clear sense of priorities. Timing is all important.

Posters should be displayed in shopping centres, shop windows and all other public gathering places. As the event draws nearer, it will be essential to increase publicity in coverage and detail by extending the promotion to all local media, regional newspapers, radio and television. For a "homecoming", publicizing on a national scale will be necessary. Free public service announcements should be used whenever possible.

Volunteers should make presentations about the celebration at social functions, as well as at meetings of service and community clubs. If possible, a small "preview" activity, representing the event, could be publicly staged to take advantage of the willingness of newspapers and television stations to highlight community events in feature stories. Such promotional activities also may boost the morale of volunteers and organizers who might need some extra motivation, especially if the event has involved long-term planning.

Consideration should be given to designing a logo for the event, to be used on posters, souvenir programs, mugs, T-shirts, envelopes, etc. Logos provide instant recognition for activities or information associated with the celebration.

The publicity committee must concentrate its focus on the media throughout the course of the event. The committee also will be responsible for keeping a complete record of the event by saving photographs, newspaper clippings and other media materials. These, as well as subcommittee records, should be carefully filed in a central storage area, such as a museum, where they can be easily retrieved for future reference. A list of contacts for future community efforts should also be developed.


The finance committee will be in charge of developing a budget which should prevent the celebration from becoming a financial burden to the community. To accomplish this, the committee must monitor the expenditures of all the subcommittees. Its other main functions will include organizing fund-raising activities, soliciting donations, and obtaining any monetary assistance in the form of grants.

Since all other activities are depending upon the success of the finance committee, it is often necessary for this committee to begin working well in advance of the others. To provide some ready cash to allow the subcommittees to commence their work, the finance committee might consider staging an initial fund-raising activity, such as a large "social", to "kick-off" the event.

Following the completion of the event, this committee will have to prepare a final statement showing all sources of revenue and all expenditures.


Creative ideas and activities should be generated by a program committee consisting of imaginative and enthusiastic members. Their acquaintance with many people in the community should help to locate crafts people, artists and heritage enthusiasts, all people whose talents will be needed to stage the event.

To provide background material for the event, the first task of the committee might be that of research: checking early newspapers, reading local histories, talking to long-time residents, and contacting professionals at museums, universities, and the Historic Resources Branch. The members might also gather: period clothing; traditional, ethnic or pioneer recipes; and details on local customs and traditions. Once research has been completed, special and imaginative methods of showcasing local history should be devised.

To stimulate interest in the community, teachers could involve young people by having students prepare essays on historical events or individuals. Students might also be asked to transcribe information from gravestones in local cemeteries. Elderly people could be encouraged by the program committee to record their memoirs, to undertake photographic and drawing projects and to provide old maps. Church leaders could contribute written histories of their religious institutions. Local business people might chronicle the growth of various regional commercial enterprises. All these groups should be encouraged to suggest activities which might allow them creative scope and interest. Their materials can be displayed to show the development of the community.

Depending upon the scope of the event, the program committee might wish to establish subcommittees to execute some of the following specific activities:

  • Displays and Exhibits

    Various artifacts such as photographs, clothing, tools, needlework, books, letters, diaries and maps can be collected and exhibited during the event. These might conceivably develop into the nucleus of a permanent museum or archival collection.

    If additional artifacts are needed to complete the display, these may be available, on loan to the community, through the Manitoba Museum.

  • Demonstrations

    A wide range of activities, such as weaving, quilting, bead-working, soapmaking, or even harvesting, could be publicly demonstrated. Perhaps a specific historical event, such as the arrival of the first settlers, could be re-enacted. Times, places, and volunteers for such demonstrations would have to be scheduled and coordinated.

  • Performances

    Entertainment must be planned for the event. Special entertainment could include musical, theatrical or dance presentations. It might even be possible to commission an original production based on an historical theme. Any production in a language other than English or French will require background information in both official languages, relating the historical significance of the event to the community.

  • Special Events

    Besides formal ceremonies and plaque unveilings, these activities could include parades, contests, special awards or community dances.

    The program committee will act as the liaison between the financial and other committees. Its plans will depend upon and, at the same time, dictate the resources of the other committees. Any changes in the program should be relayed to other committees as soon as possible. It will, therefore, be important that good communications exist between this group and all others working on the event.

Facilities and Services

This committee must consider and be responsible for the physical and human requirements of the event. It must provide adequate space for all the activities, arrange for special permits, rent equipment, arrange transportation of people and materials, set up sound and lighting systems, make seating arrangements, provide medical and washroom facilities, and much more. Provisions must be made for the possible attendance of disabled persons and senior citizens, and alternative arrangements for some event may be necessary in case of inclement weather. All members of this committee should be familiar with construction practices and local bylaws and regulations.


A heritage event offers an excellent opportunity to serve food based on ethnic or old-time recipes. The refreshments committee therefore should attempt to provide an assortment of food appropriate to the event. The committee also might choose to launch a display of old-fashioned cooking methods and utensils, if a historical theme is used. For an ethnic theme, a demonstration of food preparation techniques would be appropriate. Servers could be dressed in period or ethnic costumes.

The refreshments committee will have to work closely with the facilities and services committee to meet its goals.


Overnight accommodations will be needed if the heritage event is staged over a weekend. For one-day events, or those aimed at drawing only a local audience, this committee may be omitted.

The accommodations committee should consider the use of private homes as an alternative if commercial establishments are insufficient. An accommodation bureau, with a register of available private lodging, can be established. Campgrounds and facilities in nearby towns should be considered as well. A list of possible accommodations should accompany any information kits mailed to expected guests. Early planning by this committee is essential.

If the celebration is planned as an annual event, the committee should anticipate an increased number of visitors in succeeding years. For an annual event, a long-range study of accommodations will be required.

Long-Range Planning

Whether the event is being organized on a one-time basis or as an annual affair, it would be useful to have a long range planning committee as a source of ideas and for building on the enthusiasm generated by the celebration. Its main purpose would be to promote heritage awareness through follow-up projects, such as: publication of a local history or a book based on a local historical theme, preparation of a heritage education kit for local schools; fund-raising for specific restoration projects, historical research, museum development or archival preservation.

After the event

Even after the event has been staged successfully, the process is not complete. The posters and exhibits must be removed. All debts must be paid and the accounts balanced. Then all the committees should re-assemble, each giving a brief report outlining its activities, successes, failures and recommendations. A careful analysis of the financial statement must be made. The accomplishments of the event must be evaluated. A final report on the completed staging of the event should be sent to the local municipal council and to the newspaper for publication. A copy of this should be filed with all the committee papers for future reference. If all has gone according to plan and all goals have been reached, the group might choose to begin plans for another celebration, or at least hold a wind-up party to thank all the volunteers!

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