By LEIGH C. MERRIFIELD
News & Journal Editor
We’ve come a long way since the days of candles on Christmas trees and hanging oil lanterns. To be sure, lights at Christmas today have gotten quite elaborate by comparison … lights on trees, lights in windows, lights outlining rooflines, etc. And many folks still drive through neighborhoods in their communities just to see how some people decorate their homes. If you enjoy extravagant lighting during the holidays, then you need to reserve an evening to visit the ‘Celebration of Lights’ at Morris Park in Fairmont. It’s a short drive and worth the trip!
The ‘Celebration of Lights’ got its start nine years ago, sponsored by the Rotary Club of South Fairmont as a fundraiser for the United Way of Marion County. According to Rotarian Bob Hunt, the first year there were 30 rather small displays; this year there are 335 colorful displays and about a quarter of them are animated.
“We limped along the first few years and then it really caught on,” Hunt stated. “It has continued to grow ever since. Displays are purchased by individuals, families and businesses; some are ordered from our distributor and others are custom built.”
There is no further charge to a display sponsor after the original purchase except for maintenance. Hunt says they take some weather abuse and sometimes have to have some repairs, but there are many that are still original displays that have held up well.
“They are all holiday displays – some religious, some elves, trees, and even a few Jewish displays. Others bring smiles – like Santa stuck upside down in a chimney and a dog pushing a tree over with an ornament hanging from its mouth. Those who have owned a dog have perhaps experienced this predicament in real life!” he added.
As far as custom built displays go, Mr. Hunt has enhanced his welding skills and builds them himself!
“People will bring me a photo of what they want and I go from there, welding the frame and getting LED lights from a supplier. One couple wanted a log cabin and that took some time, but typically I can custom build a display in just a few days – depending on the complexity of the display,” he said.
Hunt also noted that they try not to have any duplicate displays, so if you drive through Morris Park, you will see mostly one-of-a-kinds.
“We also try to keep it non-commercial,” he continued. “None of the displays purchased by businesses have their phone numbers of them. We try to just allow people to drive through and enjoy the displays. It gives people a little respite from all the commercialism of the holidays.”
Morris Park displays feature no blow-ups, no plastics or resins. They are all welded displays and many are animated.
The donation to drive through the ‘Celebration of Lights’ is $10 per car no matter how many people are in the vehicle. For buses, the donation fee is $25. The display is a 1.3-mile loop, and usually there is no wait time, except perhaps around Thanksgiving weekend when local families have relatives visiting from outside the area and of course during the week of Christmas.
“We get very good feedback. People seem to truly enjoy the displays and some visit us every year. It’s a wonderful distraction from all the shopping and other holiday preparations that people get so involved with,” Hunt says. “Most of our visitors are from the tri-county area (Harrison, Marion and Monongalia Counties), and now that it has grown so much, we begin getting inquiries in October as to when it will be open for viewing. Some people even plan a trip to the area during times when the lights are on, so it has become very popular … and it is for such a worthy cause because all of the gate fees are donated to United Way.”
The ‘Celebration of Lights’ at Morris Park opened last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and will continue each Friday, Saturday and Sunday through the holiday season. The week of Christmas, the lights will be on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but not on Christmas Day. And following Christmas, the final two days to view the displays will be December 26th and 27th. Hours are from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. on open days.
Sixty new displays were added just this year! Some start small and add to their display each year! One display, featuring Santa, his sleigh and all nine reindeer, is seven feet tall and 45 feet long!
Walkers, too, are afforded the opportunity to enjoy the light displays. One evening each year is set aside as ‘Walkers Night’; this year it is Thursday, December 8th. There is no vehicular traffic permitted – just walkers/joggers only.
As this event has grown so large over the past nine years, it is no small task to erect all of these displays! Thankfully, though, many people and groups continue to volunteer their time to help with set up and operations. Rotary Club members man the entry station as well as people from each of the agencies that benefit from funding from the United Way of Marion County.
“Actually, we all rather enjoy putting in our time at the entry gate,” Hunt remarked. “It gives us the opportunity to meet lots of people each year and we see families with lots of excited children as passengers. It’s always a fun experience.”
This event was enjoyed by many and very profitable for the United Way last year. Five thousand cars passed through last year’s ‘Celebration of Lights’! That means that this fundraiser donated $50,000 to United Way of Marion County in 2015!
Take a break from the hustle bustle of the holiday season and reserve an evening to enjoy the Celebration of Lights in 2016. Morris Park is located on Pleasant Valley Road in Fairmont.