Sunday, December 14, 2014

Where is the Best Christmas Light Display?

America has an obsession with electrical stimulation. Even Snoopy gets in on the act.

Duluth, Minnesota is making its case as the world's capital of Christmas lights. It's a win-win for everyone, especially Minnesota Power. Does that reflect the crass commercialism bemoaned by Charlie Brown, or something more? It's a curious dichotomy for a community that was recently recognized as America's best outdoor town. Merv Griffin may have been on to something when he sang about this "Christmas City." There are only so many towns with their own holiday jingle.

First, there's the annual display at Marcia Hales’ place on the 3700 block of Park Point’s Minnesota Avenue, a private beach house on Lake Superior. A glowing fairy tale greets all comers to her maze of luminescent, whimsical displays, who follow flickering ice candles from mistletoe to manger, stopping by a crackling fire. There is a free-will donation in the garden house, where Santa greets every child with a candy cane, but the spiced cider and cookies cost no more than a "Merry Christmas." The display eventually spills out onto the beach, where thousands of laser lights illuminate the sand like a field of green, Christmas stars. Confronting the vast Lake Superior, you're at once reminded of the insignificance of our largest undertakings and appreciative of the inviting glow behind you.

Then there's the Kern family house on 2725 Exhibition Drive, which won the city's 2013 lighting contest. A display of flashing lights is choreographed to a looped, 12-minute music soundtrack broadcast on local FM radio. The view out the other side of your car overlooks the Twin Ports harbor far below, a spectacular light show in its own right for 365 days a year. The only cost is the gas to get there...or your own foot power.

Finally, there is Bentleyville, with nearly six miles of  incandescent pleasure illuminating the Bayfront Festival Park in downtown Duluth. Since its inception at nearby Esko in 2001, the Bentleyville Tour of Lights has rapidly grown into the nation's largest free holiday light display. The massive display requires over 600 volunteers and takes nearly 10 weeks to set up. The centerpiece is a 128-foot illuminated Christmas Tree, which Charlie Brown definitely wouldn't like.

Upon entering the exhibition, I expected the usual assortment of vendors with overpriced concessions. Instead, we were treated to free cookies and cocoa, popcorn and--roasting sticks and wood fire included--marshmallows. It's Disney World, without the price-tag. There is a nominal parking fee of $5, and a few voluntary offering boxes solicit funds to "keep the lights on," but the attraction itself is free-of-charge. Perhaps the city and sponsors are more than cheered with nearly 300,000 visitors patronizing local hotels and restaurants.

Of course, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of other displays--some nearly as good--to warrant a leisurely winter's evening drive. Clark W. Griswold would feel at home in Duluth. The crisp, December air in northern Minnesota is as likely to be 25 below (-32 ºC) as it is to be merely freezing. Strings of colored lights--lovingly adorned for no more reason than to give a little joy to others--may be artificial, but they are a real way to bring the warmth of Christmas to cold hearts. Is there a better town for holiday lights anywhere?