Although some people dread the first sight of Christmas decorations in local stores, many small towns across Oklahoma are thinking about Christmas year-round.
Towns such as Guthrie, Woodward and Chickasha spend months preparing, with thousands of dollars and volunteer hours going into transforming the towns into a full Christmas experience.
“The Territorial Christmas Celebration is the biggest event of the year for our town,” says Lucy Swanson of the Guthrie Chamber of Commerce. “Our downtown merchants, in particular, feel that it is the biggest money maker of the year.”
Guthrie, which was once the territorial capital of the state of Oklahoma, began its annual celebration in the late 1980s when locals began wearing Victorian-era clothing and strolling through the downtown area or working in local shops, many choosing to create “living Christmas cards” in their windows.
“Guthrie was in the midst of a renaissance of sorts at the time, as the beauty and history contained in the lovely Victorian buildings downtown had been rediscovered and restored,” Swanson says. “It was perfect timing and a perfect idea to promote our beautiful little town, ‘The Williamsburg of the West’.”
This year, Guthrie expects thousands of visitors not just from Oklahoma but from around the world to visit their town to enjoy the festivities and participate in the Victorian Walks, enjoying more decorations and living Christmas cards than ever before.
“This year we will have improved decorations, more windows, added venues, and the Sweet Adeline Choir will be performing, as well as school choirs from across the state,” Swanson says. “One of the cool things about the whole thing is that anyone can jump in and participate. All you need is an outfit and you are in.”
Woodward, which is celebrating its 17th year of decorating in 2012, each year creates Crystal Christmas in Crystal Beaches Park. Though the event had humble beginnings, taking more than a year to plan the first time, the event has grown consistently year to year says Steve Jones, the chairman for this year’s event.
“The amount of lights has easily tripled and we have changed from strands of clear bulbs to the LED lights and rope lighting,” he says. There are now also animated displays, colored lights, a community choir and a live nativity.”
This year’s display will include “trees in different colors, more snowflakes and a fireworks display,” says Jones. The walkways will be lined with candy canes and the animated tunnel will have another color added to it, as well.
“I have helped on a lot of projects in the Woodward community, but Crystal Christmas is my favorite,” Jones says. “It brings an entire community out to volunteer and provides entertainment for all ages. Between the Kiwanis Train, Santa, the live Nativity, the Community Choir in the park, the opening night fireworks and all the lights it is 6 weeks of fun filled events.”
Volunteers spend more than 3,000 hours on the event each year, Jones says, between decorating and maintaining the event nightly. It takes around 10 weeks to set up, runs for 6 weeks and takes 6 weeks to tear down.
“The drive through the park is approximately 1 mile long,” Jones says. “We decorate the drive from entrance to exit, the Elks Rodeo grandstand, the Woodward Travelers baseball grandstand, the Crystal Beach water park, the interior of the park, the Crystal Beach Lake and bridge.”
Overall the event will draw more than 35,000 visitors to Woodward during its 6-week run.
The Festival of Lights, which has inspired many other small towns including Woodward, began 20 years ago in Chickasha, says Mark Millsap, director of marketing for the event.
“This is the most positive thing that the City of Chickasha does for tourism and economic development,” Millsap says. “We want to be proud of our city.”
This year’s addition to the 2012 display will be an animated light show set to music, Millsap says. Nearly 1,200 volunteers dedicate their time to install the more than 3.5 million lights that adorn Shannon Springs Park from Nov. 22 to New Year’s Eve. Millsap says he expects more than 300,000 visitors will make their way through the park this season.
The event, which supports itself entirely through funds raised through tour fees and donations, uses the funds to improve displays and the park itself each year. Over the last 20 years, more than $280,000 in improvements have been made to the Shannon Springs Park through funds raised by the Festival of Lights.