Marquette Wire

Festival of Lights

Photo+courtesy+of+Erica+Chang
Photo courtesy of Erica Chang

Photo courtesy of Erica Chang

Photo courtesy of Erica Chang

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From mid-November to the start of January, nightfall in the city of Milwaukee brings a world of twinkling lights. Perhaps most eye-catching are the vibrant blue and white LED chandeliers suspended over various intersections. The dazzling blue hue stretched across the busy roads is striking yet elegant. Bold white chandeliers simultaneously demand attention while gracefully dressing up the city.

“When you stand on the west side of Wisconsin Avenue and look east, you get a really incredible view of so many chandeliers lined up over the intersections,” Erica Chang, marketing and events coordinator for Milwaukee Downtown, says. “It’s not something you see in every city, and so we kind of get to claim that as one of our Milwaukee holiday lights traditions.”

Andrea Garcia, fifth-year senior in the College of Health Sciences, loves the details of holiday decorating. She looks forward to the blue chandeliers and cozy city holiday lights each year. Coming from Chicago, where holiday lights are abundant and plentiful, Garcia remembers feeling excited during her first winter at Marquette seeing Milwaukee dressed up for the season in a similar fashion.

“It seems like a little homey. It’s kind of like when the RAs decorate your floor … it’s just kind of welcoming,” she says.

This holiday season marks the 20th anniversary of the annual Milwaukee Holiday Lights Festival. The city-wide celebration begins Nov. 15 with a jam-packed kick-off event: a variety of shows featuring Milwaukee’s local talent, fireworks, warm treats, a guest appearance by Santa Claus and of course an official flip-the-switch lighting of the city’s holiday lights. Three of the city’s parks — Cathedral Square, Zeidler Union Square and Pere Marquette — will be aglow with lights celebrating different themes of the holiday season.

The Milwaukee Holiday Lights Festival has grown and developed immensely. The kick-off, which began as a small event in 1998, now draws a crowd of thousands and for the past three years has been broadcasted live by WISN 12.

Greg Peterson, director of the Clean Sweep Ambassadors Program, Milwaukee’s street cleaning service, has been involved in setting up the festival since its beginning. For Peterson, witnessing the large crowd of families, friends, neighbors and strangers gathered on opening night is the rewarding culmination of a weeks-long preparation process.

“You see some of the same people there every year,” Peterson says. “We’re creating traditions for families to enjoy and I think that’s awesome. It’s a great way to kick off your holiday season.”

The Clean Sweep Ambassadors Program, comprised of Peterson, nine full-time workers and one part-time, is responsible for carrying out a variety of yearlong cleaning and preparation jobs throughout the 150 square blocks of Business Improvement District No. 21, located downtown. In October, the program usually begins the weeks-long process of setting up and maintaining holiday decorations in Pere Marquette and Cathedral Square Park. Installations this year begin Oct. 11.

One staple of the holiday season is the Jingle Bus, which starts on Nov. 16. For $2, or free on the night of the kick-off event, passengers can take a 40-minute narrated tour of Milwaukee’s landmarks and decorated parks while aboard a heated Coach USA bus. Local businesses profit from getting publicity, and passengers get to explore some of the hidden holiday gems of Milwaukee.

Greta Olson, a sophomore in the College of Health Sciences, rode the Jingle Bus with some friends last year. She says she thought the narrated tour was a fun way to see the city’s decorations and learn about Milwaukee’s history and special holiday events. The experience is particularly perfect, Olson says, for escaping long walks in bitter temperatures.

Even the act of decorating for the festival brings a sense of solidarity. The first preparations, which also begin in Nov., at Cathedral Square Park with the help of local students. During one week, a variety of schools in the area bring together a total of 3,000 students who handmake ornaments in their classrooms to decorate the trees and seasonally transform Cathedral Square into “Community Spirit Park.”

Peterson says he still feels a sense of joy at the sight of young community members coming together.

“The part that I love the best is when we get to the point where the kids come in to decorate the tree,” Peterson says. He also says that seeing the enthusiasm that the students bring in every day is really special.

Labeled “Santa’s Mailbox,” a large red mailbox stands in Community Spirit Park and allows children to send letters to Santa, no stamp required.

“I think it’s really fitting that at a time of year that’s all about being together, the Holiday Lights Festival forges those connections within the community,” Chang said.

Living in a city decked out in holiday spirit offers opportunities for Marquette students. Devin McCowan, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences, took a nighttime adventure in the heart of downtown with a group of friends last year to look at the lights.

“I feel like sometimes you just need a break from studying, and so going down and seeing the lights kind of makes me feel like I’m at home a little bit,” McCowan said.

Compared to those he annually sees at home in St. Louis, McCowan finds Milwaukee’s displays especially unique.

Last year, Olson attended the kick-off celebration, in addition to riding the Jingle Bus, and walked around exploring the city’s lights. Through all the events, she noticed the strong sense of community.

“It was a lot of families, but really there were people from all over Milwaukee. I didn’t really notice one particular crowd of people. I think that’s what the whole spirit of Christmas is about,” Olson says. “That’s really what all of these events in Milwaukee did, they brought everybody together.”

The 20th annual Milwaukee Holiday Lights Festival kicks off this year with dazzling hues, festivities for all ages, entertainment and community bonding with the season promising, to promote unity and holiday spirit across Milwaukee.

 

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