At Christmas, We’re All Electric Arsonists

December 15, 2010 – I wonder what Charles Dickens would think of our new all-electric Christmases. Everything that would have been a flame in his time, from the candles in the windows to the ones on the trees, has been replaced by red, white, and green light bulbs. Heck, we've even taken it further, doing things with our little fake flames that nobody but an arsonist would think of doing with the real thing, such as covering our houses in them. At Christmas, we're all electric arsonists.

Another prominent example of this pseudo-pyromania is the Christmas light festival. Objectively described, Christmas light festivals seem a little silly. We string colored lights onto frames in the outlines of various seasonal shapes, set them up in an open area, and then drive through them. Sometimes those lights blink.

Of course, objectively described, everything sounds silly (try it with stuffing a turkey or the democratic process). Truth is, at their best these light displays can be mesmerizing, and at their worst it’s still something to do on a long winter night. However, most importantly, they’re always ridiculously easy to experience. You get in your car, pop on some Christmas music, and just drive slow for half an hour. Whether it’s drive-through food, drive-up ATMs, or hit-and-run accidents, I’m way for stuff that doesn’t entail me having to get out of my car at any given point.

Recently, I visited two relatively major light festivals on consecutive nights, one in Hershey, PA, and the other in Wheeling, WV. Since it was late November, there were no crowds yet, although bumper-to-bumper traffic is easier to take when the world outside you is cheerfully polka-dotted with colored light.

Oh, and I guess you'll need a key to know which of the pictures in this article are from which displays. Pictures 2-5 are from Hershey, and the rest are from Wheeling. Now back to less practical matters.

The Hershey Sweet Lights Show in Hershey, PA, bills itself as a “holiday drive-thru spectacular.” It’s part of the whole “Christmas in Hershey” celebration that permeates the town that chocolate built at this time of year. Its website claims 600 different displays that cover more than two miles of woodland terrain. Honestly, it didn’t really seem like 600, but who am I to argue with a candy empire. If you can make a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, than I will accept your version of reality.

After we pulled up to the entrance and paid the $20-per-car entry fee, we were given the chance to buy snacks and hot chocolate, informed which radio station was playing Christmas music, and were then handed a couple of pairs of cardboard glasses with cellophane lenses like the 3D glasses of yore. Instead of faking an extra dimension, though, these glasses turned every point of light into a luminous snowflake. The glasses worked remarkably well, regardless of the light source, even the moon. I still use them like once a week while I’m driving around. They make stoplights a lot more fun.

From there, we wended our way with darkened headlights through the merrily lighted landscape, saying “Look at that!” a lot to each other as we passed animals, elves, Christmas trees, and toys, all outlined in colorful lights. In fact, the Star Wars guy in me who randomly escapes the box that I’ve carefully sealed him in since 1999 wanted to take advantage of the lack of crowds and go as fast as possible to see if I couldn’t turn the light points into hyperspace streaks.

Surprisingly, there weren’t as many candy shapes as you’d think there would be for something with “Hershey” in its name. Quite a few were animated, though, meaning the lights blinked on and off to give the illusion of hands waving and wheels rolling and snowballs being thrown and such.

Finally, we hit the last display, a Hershey’s Kiss in a Santa hat bidding us an enthusiastic goodbye, and were then directed by a man with a lighted wand to turn back onto the main highway. It was a strange, finale-less transition. I mean, when every previous turn yielded blazing wonders, turning onto a dark highway featuring only sporadic head and tail lights just felt empty.

A night later, we were able to console ourselves with the Oglebay Winter Festival of Lights, in Wheeling, WV. I was a bit more excited about this one. Apparently, it’s been featured on the Travel Channel’s Extreme Christmas Celebrations and is touted as one of the nation’s largest displays of its kind. I was expecting to be so dazzled that I would violently careen straight into them. Sometimes the appropriate response to beauty is just death.

Oglebay is the name of the resort that hosts this renowned static light show. Most of it is on the main public road outside the resort, so we accidentally saw half of the whole festival when we accidentally overshot the entrance. Paying $12 meant you got to see the half on the actual resort grounds. Kind of a strange arrangement, honestly. Before actually starting the festival route, we stopped by the gift shop, outside of which were tons of LED-lighted greenery and a life-size nativity scene in what they called the “Gardens of Light.”

Despite its reputation, this festival only claimed about 70 displays spread across a six mile drive, far fewer than what Hershey touts, and it did seem like shorter little jaunt to me. "Shorter little jaunt" might be a triply redundant. That's a rare animal.

However, Oglebay definitely featured a higher class of light display, with more intricate and much larger pieces than Hershey. These included dinosaurs, a dragon, a giant snowman, the Peanuts gang, a carousel, and other things that are pretty cool by themselves but look way cooler outlined in light. Still, all together, it was nothing that would make me say, “They should feature this on some show with Extreme in the title.” Don’t get me wrong. I liked it. Just wouldn’t use they type of word that always comes with an exclamation point after it is all.

The Oglebay Winter Festival of Light ended at a second gift shop, but, like the Hershey’s display, with no real last hurrah, just a right turn that took us home to our more light-impoverished lives. I still feel like I need closure on the whole two nights for some reason.

Although both the Hershey and Oglebay light festivals were fine specimens of the form, they weren’t that many degrees more advanced on the “Oh My God” scale than the local light festivals I’ve been to over the years during my less far-ranging Christmas seasons. So if you happen to have one of these near where you live, I’d say definitely go toward the light.


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