Thursday, May 23, 2024

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Season of Light

Transforming Darkness With a Cozy Glow

Editor’s note:  This is an updated version of an article originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of our print magazine, now titled Out & About with The Berkshire Edge magazine, a free publication of The Berkshire Edge which you can pick up at some 140 locations in and around Berkshire County. This print magazine is published three times a year and focuses on places to go and things to do.

Growing up, my agnostic, patchwork family had a tough time figuring out which holiday to celebrate. Some years it was Christmas; some years it was Hanukkah. And if I were particularly lucky, we celebrated both. 

But it wasn’t the gifts that I remember—except for a treasured Mickey Mouse watch. It was the lights. 

The centerpiece of every Hanukkah is the menorah with its eight candles for eight nights of illumination, plus a special one to light them all. 

The quest for light in times of darkness has been a human impulse ever since humans first harnessed flame yet still wondered where it came from. As a species dependent on vision and on artificial warmth to compensate for bare skin, few things resonate more than light. It symbolizes safety, knowledge, advancement, and even joy—critical attributes, particularly when intertwined with spirituality. If there’s a religion that doesn’t equate light with divine presence or inner enlightenment, it’s news to me. 

Christians light votive and memorial candles in churches. Jews light candles to welcome the sabbath. Buddhist and Hindu shrines incorporate candles. The holiday Diwali, celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and some Buddhists, is a festival of light, as is Kwanzaa—an African American holiday that celebrates African heritage across seven nights of candle lighting.

And the symbolism of illuminating the darkness is not limited to things spiritual. The word enlightenment is synonymous with scientific progress, i.e., the Age of Enlightenment. In popular culture, a great epiphany is often equated with a lightbulb, or flash of light. At our best, our democracy is referred to as a beacon of light, which equates with hope. 

 

The quest for light in times of darkness has been a human impulse ever since humans first harnessed flame, yet still wondered where it came from . . .

 

For those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, festive lights and candles are associated with celebrating the winter solstice holidays. Their warm cozy glow resides so prominently in our memories that many of us dream of winter light displays and snug hearths even amid summer’s lushness. 

On a personal note, my teen daughter recently returned to the Berkshires, the place of her birth, after living in Germany for fifteen years. As I write in advance of the holiday season, she is already talking about Christmas decorations. It will be a daunting task to approach the holiday traditions of Central Europe, particularly for this solo father. But there’s little to keep the two of us from trying during this time of exceptional grace for our little family.

As a nod to her two birth faiths, there will be a menorah with candle blessings, and a Christmas tree with American-invented lights. Indeed, while Central Europe continued to shiver beside Yule logs and adorned trees with house fire-prone candles, we Americans invented Christmas tree lights (thank you, Thomas Edison et al), which were first popularized by President Grover Cleveland in 1895. It was only a matter of time before outdoor light displays became a thing. In 1920, Pasadena began illuminating a quarter mile stretch of Santa Rosa Avenue. Christmas Tree Lane, now more than 100 years old, is a mile-long South California tradition. 

Thankfully the Berkshire region has plenty of community light displays to augment our own homes decorations—some as nearby as Main Street; others within an hour’s drive. 

Winterlights at Naumkeag. Courtesy The Trustees.

In the heart of Berkshire County, there’s Winterlights at Naumkeag—a true class act. Magical and intimate and very much Berkshires. Nestled on a gilded-age estate once belonging to the Choate family and designed by McKim, Mead & White, Winterlights has caught the attention of USA Today, which has named it a “Top Ten Public Holiday Light Display”. It is indeed popular, and space is limited, book ahead. 

For a similarly enchanted experience, check out NightWood at Edith Wharton’s The Mount, an outdoor sound and light experience brought to an ethereal level and spread out across the large estate’s woods and gardens. Not to be missed, book ahead.

And don’t miss out on Hancock Holiday Nights.  The Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield is lighting up their historic buildings with light projections by artist Joe Wheaton. In their iconic Round Stone Barn will be farm animals like those that might have been present for the first Nativity scene. Enjoy holiday cocktails around a bonfire, a winter wonderland of lit trees and lit buildings. Open till December 31, visit their website for a full list of dates and times. Advance tickets are recommended for this popular new Berkshire tradition.”
Drive through Seussland at Springfield’s Bright Nights at Forest Park. Courtesy The Spirit of Springfield.

When it comes to massive light displays, the 900-pound Santa amongst these is Springfield’s Bright Nights at Forest Park. Although just 28 years old, Bright Nights is already a regional phenomenon with a growing national reputation. Listed as a Top 100 attraction by the American Bus Association, as well as a Top 10 Holiday Happening by People.com, Bright Nights has attracted more than 6 million visitors since its founding in 1995.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Bright Nights, it’s a circuitous 3-mile display-filled drive through Springfield’s Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Forest Park on the south end of town. This often-underrated city, rich in history and cultural touchstones, is the birthplace of Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), Milton Bradley (now Hasbro toys), basketball, and the first American dictionary (Merriam-Webster), among a host of many more inventions and firsts. Consequently, Bright Nights’ larger-than-life lit Christmas displays feature figurines from the magical world of Dr. Seuss and icons from Hasbro games like Monopoly and the Game of Life, plus old standbys such as toy soldiers and leaping reindeer and some inventive crowd pleasers, such as a volcano surrounded by dinosaurs. 

Skaters on the pond at Bright Nights. Courtesy The Spirit of Springfield.

For all its holiday splendor, Bright Nights had a rather humble beginning. A commercial leaflet arrived at the office of The Spirit of Springfield, a local nonprofit founded to celebrate the city. It advertised holiday light displays, the sort of which were populating parks in the American South to help Southerners feel the holiday spirit despite the holiday heat. Judy Matt, president of The Spirit of Springfield, looked at the flier, deemed it a good idea, contacted the head of the city’s parks, and in a matter of months the public-private collaboration of Bright Nights came to be. 

“There’s something magical about holiday lights,” Judy Matt says. “A tree is just a tree, until you put lights on it. Then it’s a holiday tree.”

Bright Nights has only grown over time. There are now 675,000 lights and six miles of underground wiring dedicated to illuminating an ever-growing number of figurines. And Matt would like you to know that these lights “aren’t the little ‘twinkly’ ones; they are the serious ones, the size of your thumb.” (To aficionados, they’re known as “C5”—cone-shaped bulbs with a 5/8ths-inch diameter.) 

Bright Nights runs the breadth of the holiday season from November 23 through January 1 and costs $25 per carload. But a visit to Bright Nights can also be a visit to much more: The Springfield Museums (a city block filled with five museums covering art, science, history, and Dr. Seuss!); the Basketball Hall of Fame; a meal of schnitzel, bratwurst, spätzle, and beer at the beloved Student Prince (TripAdvisor is chock full of other suggestions, including the Red Rose Pizzeria); and there’s always the MGM Grand, Springfield’s downtown casino-entertainment complex.

Northampton’s Look Park hosts a delightfully modest version of Springfield’s Bright Nights. The drive-through display north of town is a mile long; the displays are nearly all built in-house by park staff—a rare occurrence in today’s world. Displays include a princess castle, a bear, woodpecker, Snoopy, and a menorah. There is no entry cost, although donations are encouraged. There’s rarely a line. Consider combining your visit with a milkshake or mug of coffee at the Miss Florence Diner, a local 1940s boxcar hangout—one of the oldest in the nation— that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

With Albany’s Holiday Lights in the Park in limbo, the largest holiday light display in the Capital Region is now the privately sponsored Holiday Lights Spectacular on the rural company campus of Quick Response (a damage recovery service) located between Albany and Saratoga Springs. 

For those looking to mix thrills and chills with cozy light displays, Six Flags New England offers holiday-themed evenings replete with family-oriented rides and an amusement park adorned with more than a million lights. 

 

Menorah at Bright Nights. Courtesy The Spirit of Springfield.

If you’re keen on more menorah action, the Berkshire Chabad in Pittsfield is keenly dedicated to celebrating the good cheer of Hanukkah. They will be co-hosting, with the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, a free Hanukkah celebration—including live music, hot latkes(!), and of course a jumbo menorah. Check out their website, jewishberkshires.com, for details, as well as other Jewish holiday happenings. 

If you’d like to learn more about Kwanzaa and help celebrate it, Berkshire County’s Women of Color Giving Circle hosts a community candle lighting each year that highlights one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. This year it is the principle of Umoja, which means “unity”. There’s live music, a presentation, and a sharing of food that ranges from collard greens to spaghetti to meatballs. Everyone is welcome. For more information, check out the organization’s Facebook page, as well as the website for their mentoring program, ropeberkshires.org.

And if you’re hankering for an over-the-top full-Griswald family Christmas experience, as in . . .

“Dad, this tree won’t fit in our backyard.” “It’s not going in the yard, Rusty. It’s going in the living room.”

. . . there’s the Gay family’s ginormous yard display in LaGrange, NY (about 75 minutes south of Great Barrington on the Taconic Parkway—a well-timed turn off for those of you headed to New York City for holiday shopping. The display’s unwieldy name —ERDAJT—is an acronym for the family’s three children. The outdoor decorations started more than two decades ago with a mere 600 lights on a pair of trees. Since then, it has grown to well over 600,000 lights using 2,500 extension cords, measuring eight miles, and 37 miles of wiring. Firmly ensconced in the Guinness Book of World Records for most Christmas lights on a family property, the sound-choreographed display is free, but visitors entering the family’s driveway are encouraged to give a donation —all of which goes to charity. So far more than $500,000 has been raised. (Fun fact: with the use of all-LED lights, the electric bill for the holiday display is just $350 for the entire holiday season.)

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The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.