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The Holiday Lights Festival Returns
By Shout Omaha Staff
It’s that time of year again—the Christmas stockings are hung over the fireplace, presents are put under the tree and hot chocolate is preferred over regular old milk. Another tradition in the Omaha area is the The Holiday Lights Festival. It began as the Millennium Lights event in 1999. Vic Gutman approached the chair of Omaha’s millennium celebration to propose a legacy gift of holiday lights to the city to serve as a centerpiece for an annual holiday festival. The city presented an unforgettable Millennium Lights celebration and the next year the lights were given to the city as the focal attraction of the Holiday Lights Festival. Since then, it’s grown to become a full-fledged festival with a series of community events taking place from Thanksgiving night through New Year’s Eve. Project Manager Emily Peklo talked to Shout about everything that goes into planning the massive event each year.

Shout Weekly: What has made The Holiday Lights Festival so popular over the years?
Emily Peklo: The lights encompass more than 40 blocks and really paint an incredible picture of the downtown area. More than 100,000 people are expected to enjoy the sight of the lights during the five weeks in which they are on display. And the Holiday Lights Festival events are not only a great deal of fun, but everything is family-friendly and free or low-cost.
Any new surprises this year? If so, what?
We know of so many families who have made the Holiday Lights Festival part of their annual holiday festivities, and some have even introduced a new generation to the tradition. So while the fundamental series of events and Festival elements are retained, the details of the programming change every year. No individual event is ever exactly the same from year to year.

Tell me about everything that’s going down this year.
The Festival launches on Thanksgiving night with the CenturyLink Thanksgiving Lighting Ceremony in the in the Gene Leahy Mall at 14th and Farnam. The official countdown begins at 6 p.m., but people who find their viewing spot a little early can enjoy musical performances from MasterSingers and the Jingle Bell Brass Ensemble. We distribute battery-operated votives to the first 3,000 people to arrive. When Mayor Jean Stothert leads the crowd in a countdown to turn on the 2014 lighting display, the crowd lights up their little votives at the same time the lights go on, and they become part of the display themselves. Trees throughout the Gene Leahy Mall and neighboring streets are lit with hundreds of thousands of white lights, and the trees along 16th Street from Howard to Dodge Streets and 10th Street from Douglas Street to Abbott Drive are also lit. Many downtown businesses and residences feature lighting and holiday decorations as well, so the atmosphere is very festive. The Gene Leahy Mall lights serve as a focal point for the lighting display and are sponsored by Aetna, and the lights are on each evening from 5 p.m. until 1 a.m. through January 4.
After the ceremony, the public is invited to shop and dine in the Old Market—there’s a listing of open businesses on our website,—and attend a free holiday concert at the Holland Performing Arts Center. The Making Spirits Bright Holiday Concert begins at 7 p.m and features special guest vocalist Mary Carrick accompanied by the Nebraska Wind Symphony. The concert is sponsored by Cox Communications, and additional support is provided by the Mammel Foundation.
For the fourth year, the Holiday Lights are expanding to North Omaha and South Omaha, thanks to the generosity of the Sherwood Foundation. The South Omaha Lighting Ceremony will be held at La Plaza de La Raza at 24th and N Streets on Friday, December 5, starting at 6 p.m. 24th Street between L and Q Streets will be illuminated. The North Omaha Lighting Ceremony will be held near 24th and Lake Streets at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 6, to close out Christmas in the Village. Holiday lights will enhance the six-block surrounding area.
Every Saturday from November 29 to December 27, Pacific Life Insurance Company Sounds of the Season features local choral groups at different outdoor locations throughout the Gene Leahy Mall and the Old Market.
Next up is the Wells Fargo Family Festival, from noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday, December 7. A free trolley service will connect the six participating venues—Wells Fargo bank at 20th and Douglas, Omaha Children’s Museum, the Omaha Police Mounted Patrol Barn, The Durham Museum, the W. Dale Clark (downtown) Library, and Joslyn Art Museum—so families can park at any of the sites. Each venue will offer free admission and family activities, and most also feature musical performances. Details are available on our website.
The ConAgra Foods Ice Skating Rink opens Friday, December 12 on the ConAgra Foods Campus at 10th & Harney and remains open through Sunday, January 4. Kids under 5 skate free but the $5 admission fee for everyone else includes skate rental and one hundred percent of the proceeds benefit Shine the Light on Hunger, a campaign that supports Food Bank for the Heartland. ConAgra will match all rink income dollar for dollar up to $100,000 and the campaign as a whole has a goal this year to bring in the equivalent of 1.3 million meals. Shine the Light on Hunger is a big part of Holiday Lights Festival; participants can bring nonperishable food donations to many of the events or to the ice rink and there’s additional information on how to support the Food Bank on our website.
The New Year’s Eve Fireworks Spectacular is the closing event of the Festival and takes place at 7 p.m. so families with children can enjoy the show, too, and everyone can watch with family or friends before heading out for the evening. The Gene Leahy Mall is the official viewing area, although the fireworks are visible for miles, and the musical score is broadcast live on Star 104.5. J&M Displays choreographs this show, which is one of the largest in the region and truly dazzling.

How long does it take to plan each annual event?
It’s really a year-round process. Planning for the 2015 show is going to begin in January, and we are in full swing by fall. A local company called Christmas Decor begins installing the lights while it’s still summer.

How many people do you need to pull it off?
This is hard to calculate, but when you consider that the Holiday Lights Festival is actually a series of events, the number of people involved at some level must reach into the thousands. Each facet of the Festival requires of team of individuals to plan and execute the details, from the Mayor’s office and the Downtown Omaha Inc. Foundation who present the festival; to presenting sponsors ConAgra Foods, KMTV-Channel 3, and Star 104.5; and event sponsors Wells Fargo, CenturyLink and Aetna, who all have significant involvement. We rely on the expertise of many businesses and individuals to make the Festival successful and hundreds of volunteers also offer their support. It’s an amazing undertaking.

What is your favorite part about participating in this event?
Absolutely everyone can find something to love about the Festival.

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