There are as many opinions on the incredible festival as there are lights on the courthouse.
But there’s one surprisingly clear fact that maybe it’s time to really spend some time looking at the holiday lighting show since its debut.
The early start of planning for the 2022 festival and the corps of volunteers who have answered the clarion call for the renewal and revitalization of the festival are encouraging.
Wonderland of Lights releases from the past decade weren’t the same lighting exhibit as the 1986 original. Constructive change can be good, but change for change’s sake rarely goes as planned.
Thirty-five years ago, the chamber committee operated on a budget of approximately $70,000: $25,000 in start-up capital in the form of a check from the native and international fashion model Marshall, Wendy Russell Reves, and the rest came from local merchants and citizens in the form of contributions.
“Excitedly Primitive” was the best way to describe the lighting fixtures and projects of the first five years. Light panels were created from pipes, wire netting, hand-tied lights in intricate patterns, anchor posts and extension cords; 4 by 8 plywood panels, hand painted by art students and citizens, created the Christmas Card park; Similar-sized opaque plexiglass panels, with Christmas scenes painted black by local art students, backlit by inexpensive projectors, created magical Christmas signs all over town.
Lights were on every building downtown, all decorated by the individual merchants, with art students recording lights in holiday scenes or messages in store windows. A gigantic Christmas tree was decorated with hundreds of ornaments made by elementary art students from area schools.
Volunteers visited each merchant and presented them with a detailed list of the number of strands of lights needed to decorate the storefronts for maximum effect. The chamber bought the lights and sold them to local citizens for a small profit; this only fueled the need for lights, and every store that sold Christmas lights was always out of stock.
The News Messenger printed a special Christmas coloring book (at cost) – “Santa’s Christmas Eve Cattle Drive” – with illustrations by Liza Bacon; the chamber sold the books to raise funds to support the festival.
Most churches are elaborately decorated, as are businesses in US 80s and 59s, including all restaurants, hotels, and motels.
The county courthouse was wrapped in a huge plastic bow, like a gift.
The Wonderland of Lights committee recruited neighborhood chairs, who went door to door encouraging neighbors to decorate. Most did, and those who needed help hanging lamps simply called the chamber and volunteers responded quickly and volunteered time to help neighbors. High school social clubs sent teams of volunteers to help the elderly residents.
How has the festival changed from those halcyon days when Marshall “owned” the rights to Texas’ “best lit city” when the city was on the cover of Texas Highways and Texas Monthly, when Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and Fort Worth Star-Telegram sent reporters to East Texas to report on the phenomenon, and television crews from Shreveport, Dallas and Houston provided live coverage of the illumination ceremonies.
What’s the difference between years past and when Marshall was the Trail of Lights launch leader with Shreveport, Natchitoches and Jefferson, when over 300 tour buses visited our city to see the Dancing Lights at the Dancing Lights factory? sewer, home An illuminated Texas flag the size of a roof near downtown, when more than 35 towns from Iowa to New Jersey called the Chamber of Commerce for advice?
What has changed since the days when “donation stations” were set up at the entrances to the plaza and tens of thousands of dollars in donations were given to keep the show going? Volunteers in this area remember a man telling a volunteer out loud that he wouldn’t give a dime to come in and see the lights, then later came back and handed that volunteer a $100 bill. .
Tuesday and Thursday nights were once boom days for visitors due to one simple attraction – The Living Christmas Tree with church and school choirs from Texas and Louisiana. The tree contained more than 35 singers, all dressed in red and green dresses made by local 4-H club members.
The concept and reason for the lighting show has changed: it is no longer simple, pristine, elegant even, and the hordes of volunteers and the pride of owners and companies to participate seem to be missing. It seems to be more of a chore to participate today than to be part of a community project requiring community pride and individual ownership.
From year one, the mantra was: It’s not about lights, it’s about the spirit of giving, the act of any community providing special memories to visitors.
A story illustrates the impact of the festival on people: a volunteer saw a car stop in the square; a woman and three children emerged, the children immediately dispersed to run under the lighted trees. The woman collapsed on the sidewalk.
The volunteer rushed forward; in the light of the courthouse, he could see the tears streaming down the woman’s face. “Madam, are you okay? She replied, “It’s so beautiful!”
The woman explained, “I bring the children here every night. It’s the only Christmas we’ll have. Her husband had left the family, she had been laid off after Thanksgiving, and the holiday season was going to be lean for the family.
The volunteer took his name and contact details. Two days later, once the news spread through the community, the woman had a full-time job, volunteers collected gifts for all the children, and a local grocery store provided them with food to spend the holidays.
Wonderland of Lights… never about the lights, but the holiday spirit.
A return to the roots of the festival: it certainly can’t hurt and could help.
— George S. Smith is a former editor of the Marshall News Messenger.