Twinkling through the early December snowflakes are lights--thousands of lights, millions of lights, flashing and fading. Red, blue, yellow, green, purple, white. Coiled around fence posts, bushes and windowsills, they are an annual growth that covers the city with a clear message that the holidays are here. And the roots are at the very heart of downtown.
Monument Circle is bright, but your eyes are drawn up, and up again, until you're staring into the faces of some of the tallest sailors and soldiers you've ever seen.
These 12-foot-tall uniformed men surround you as you make your way past an array of 10-foot tall red-and-white striped peppermint sticks around the perimeter of Indianapolis' most iconic sculpture, The Soldiers & Sailors Monument in downtown Indianapolis.
Follow the circle of garland, over the lighted bows and wreaths, and your eyes naturally travel up and down those 52 strands of multi-colored lights carefully strung -- counter clockwise from south to north -- around the 284-foot tall monument that transforms into the city's biggest and brightest Christmas tree each year.
The Circle of Lights that signals the start of the holiday season in Indianapolis each winter attracts more than 100,000 visitors to its annual tree-lighting ceremony held the day after Thanksgiving.
The original idea of decorating the monument for the holidays was suggested "back at the close of World War II," says Julia Saltsgaver, Executive Director of Quality Connection, a presenting partner of the Circle of Lights along with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local #481.
"It was thought that the monument should never be dark again. That it should shine brightly as a symbol of brotherhood and peace."
The 52 strands of lights debuted in 1962, yet it wasn't until after the city launched an international design competition in 1999 that the soldiers, sailors and peppermint sticks found a home.
During the holiday season, it's common to see children running around the larger-than-life statues, and Downtown workers and visitors taking in the fullness of the landscape via foot, car or horse-drawn carriage.
"This is our (Indianapolis') Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade," says Saltsgaver. "The outcome, the impact, we know it's been very touching to people. They consume it. (The Circle of Lights) helps and inspires them."
Six minutes west of the monument is the Indianapolis Zoo. Walk through the front entrance gates and you're immediately engulfed in a sea of miniature, twinkling lights wrapped around trees, intertwined throughout bushes and affixed to buildings.
As you travel along the winding sidewalks to the zoo's various biomes, White River Gardens and the Hilbert Conservatory, pathways are illuminated with oversize yet whimsical animal sculptures -- dolphins, flamingos, walruses -- outlined in a multitude of brightly-colored LED lights that decorate the 64-acre property.
Christmas at the zoo began in the late 1960s at its former home on East 30th Street. Then-director Earl Woodward wanted to decorate the zoo with lights for the holiday and asked the Zoo Guild to take the lead -- making the Indianapolis Zoo the first in the country to host a holiday lights event, according to Indy Zoo history.
"Decorating for Christmas at the Zoo was initially done by our guild, when we had one, but our park team has taken it over," says Meg Magsamen, special events and advertising manager at the Indianapolis Zoo.
"The event has grown so much over the years that we start hanging lights Labor Day week. Once Zoo Boo (the annual Halloween event) is over, that's when we begin installing the displays."
But beyond the lights, there's also the sounds you hear throughout the night -- from the dolphins during their holiday show to the carolers singing Christmas tunes and children squealing with delight as they see Santa Claus for the first time. Then there are the scents of sweet and salty confections that come wafting in the cold air from inside Santa's Sweet Shop.
Robert Salter, park operations manager and one of the many people responsible for stringing lights, installing displays and checking songs, said the months of work the team puts into creating Christmas at the Zoo is well worth the effort when you're able to see the reactions of the visitors.
"Walking through the zoo after everything is up is great because of the excitement that you get from the kids and adults," says Salter. "It's great to see people enjoying the displays."
Thirty minutes north of downtown, while driving along State Road 37 toward Fishers, you can see some of the taller displays -- a 60-foot-tall cross and a 50-foot abominable snowman topping a Christmas tree with a single star.
Just over the bridge, near the State Road 37 and the 126th Street exit, sits Reynolds Farm Equipment and its nearly 10-acres of Christmas lights and decor.
In addition to the cross and giant snowman, the display showcases skaters playing a game of ice hockey, an igloo, a farm scene complete with animals, Noah's Ark, leaping reindeer, as well as a moving train (dubbed The Reynolds Express). They're all draped in miles and miles of rope lighting, which stays on day and night.
It might look like a static holiday display to most, but the real magic happens when you drive past the two toy soldiers that lead you onto a long narrow road that takes you past the works of art. That's when the scenes -- all handmade by Reynolds' employees -- seem to come to life in a sort of 3D effect.
"Each piece you see out there we make ourselves, from concept to building it. Our largest piece is the cross and because it's so big, we had to first draw and put it together on the floor," says Michael Lawson, director of public relations at Reynolds, and grandson of company founders Mac and Arline Reynolds. Each year, Arline, now age 94, flips the switch to kick off the holiday show.
The Reynolds' display began 21 years ago when an employee asked to string lights along the property. Given the thumbs-up, he decided to decorate using a Model D tractor draped with green and yellow lights. Since then, a new piece or two has been added each year. There are now hundreds of designs and characters in the collection.
How they decide on those design elements is a "complex system," jokes Lawson. Actually, they're developed via an in-house brainstorming session or through public contests. These days, Lawson says they receive calls from residents suggesting new decorations, as well as messages of thanks for putting on the light show each year.
At Reynolds its not just about spreading holiday cheer through lights and wonder, there's also a philanthropic aspect. Many visitors donate money or nonperishable items to the Come-To-Me Food Pantry in Fishers. On certain days, volunteers from the pantry stand throughout the display collecting donations as people pass by the various scenes.
"Over the past four years, the average of total donations we've received have been extremely generous," says the pantry's volunteer Don Greenlee. "This comes from loose change, change in plastic bags or coin holders, to various levels of currency. We also collect nearly 500 pounds of nonperishable food items each year."
Whether you enjoy the lights at Reynolds each year from the highway or actually drive through, taking in the display during the holidays has become a tradition for many residents, who first came as children and who now drive through with their own families.
"For me, personally," says Lawson, "it's really about being able to share the joy of Christmas."
- Mike Potter
- Dolphin Pavilion decked out for Christmas at the Zoo.
But it's not just commercial displays that have a lock on spreading Christmas joy. Another tradition that's been developing locally is the popularity of residential shows that often rival the large-scale commercial Christmas light displays. Some are so widely known they attract hundreds of thousands of people each year.
Homeowners are going beyond just wrapping a few strands of lights around trees in their yards and along the roof lines of their homes. They've upped the "wow factor" and are creating full-scale holiday light shows.
Hal Frye, president of Frye Electric Inc., said the demand from residential and commercial properties wanting to decorate their landscape for the holidays has definitely increased over the years.
"We're decorating 100 different houses and businesses (subdivisions, apartment complexes) this year, and about 80 percent of them are homes," says Frye, who charges anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 to decorate.
This is the company's fifth year providing its Christmas decorating service, and because demand is so high they recently had to stop taking requests for the year just to keep up with their jobs already scheduled.
"Right now, we're working six to seven days a week just to keep up," says Frye.
However, there's a population of homeowners who prefer the do-it-yourself route. They're using everything from store-bought decorations, such as miniature Christmas trees, garland, wreaths and nativity scenes, to making their own display elements.
Some use common hardware items like PVC plumbing pipe to mold into the shapes needed for their designs. While others incorporate spreadsheets and computer programs to synchronize their displays to music using an FM radio frequency to broadcast over the airwaves.
These aren't simple, run-of-the-mill designs. Many are over-the-top shows that leave you wanting to come back over and over again during the season.
Seven minutes east of Reynold's, one of these residential shows begins like a throwback from an early 1900s radio program.
A melodious but mysterious voice comes across the airwaves asking you to sit back, relax and enjoy the show. Only, this isn't a play, mystery or comedy during "The Golden Age of Radio'" that you're enjoying with the family gathered around the radio in your living room.
It's the opening to Thomas Branum Jr.'s Christmas light show, a nearly 28,000 LED light spectacular -- complete with festive snowmen, leaping arches and garland, and a multi-hued Christmas tree -- synchronized to a mix of holiday, jazz, TV and movie soundtracks.
And you're enjoying it from the comfort of your car, outside Branum's home in the Harrison Park subdivision in Fishers, with your radio tuned to 100.1 FM.
Branum Jr. has been creating his Christmas light show since 2005.
He's always been fascinated with Christmas lights, even using them to decorate his room during the holidays as a young boy growing up in Park County, Indiana. But it wasn't until he saw a TV program in 2004 about three-strand lights on a house that would change color when synchronized to music, that the light bulb went off.
"I was looking for a hobby, and this was it," says Branum, who spent that summer in 2004 researching, selecting decorations and choosing songs for his holiday light display, which lasts for 15 minutes before repeating throughout the night.
"I had no idea at the time what people would say, but everybody likes it," says Branum, a financial advisor. "At least now neighbors will stop and tell me that they like the show."
Although Branum creates his holiday light display mainly for his own enjoyment, he loves the feedback he receives from neighbors, and people who have heard about it through word of mouth.
"I usually get notes from kids and adults," says Branum. "I really enjoy doing it, and the fact that people like it too is a wonderful byproduct."
Branum's display has an air of sophistication and whimsy to it.
The columns and entry overhang that lead to his front door are wrapped in red and white lights, giving the appearance of drawn drapes on a theatrical stage. The multiple snowmen dressed in black hats and scarves underneath leaping arches in the yard, an oversize, multi-hued Christmas tree, and lights that neatly trace the eaves along the multiple-tiered roofline all add to the style of his display.
It isn't until the music begins that you get a feel for Branum's sense of humor.
One minute you're listening to a big band jazz version of a holiday classic and next it's The Chipmunks (Alvin, Simon and Theodore) singing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."
"I pick songs that I think have something special about them. I've done some campy songs ... the "Superman" theme song. If I hear something that I think is funny, I might add that. Sometimes I'm inspired if I'm watching TV or at the movies," says Branum.
Putting on these residential holiday light shows is often a labor of love. From programming music to checking the lights to installing the display, it can take months of work to complete.
Just ask Thomas Lorek and his family.
Seventeen minutes from the Branums', the Carmel residents created what they call Christmas on Victory in 2009, with Lorek building most of the display elements himself out of common yard and hardware items.
The show features 70,000 incandescent lights that blink, dim, twinkle and fade to a soundtrack that features an eclectic mix of Christmas tunes, movie soundtracks, as well as pop and rap music.
There are more than 450 elements in Lorek's show, but the focal points are a 26-foot "mega tree" featuring 96 strands (or 10,000 red, blue and green lights) topped with a strobe-light star; leaping arches made with 15 feet of PVC pipe wrapped in lights; and an electronic version of a firework bursting into a multi-hued explosion.
This show has become so popular that it has its own Facebook page, Instagram account, and YouTube and Vimeo channels.
But it's a Christmas light show that almost never was.
"I was hesitant to do it at first," says Lorek, who works in information technology. "The products to control the lights and the electronics were very expensive."
Yet a little prodding from neighbors, lots of research, and being handy enough with welding and soldering to build his own display elements, has resulted in a show that attracts many to his house on Victory Court in Carmel.
Lorek says the show, which lasts about 60 minutes before it starts to repeat, has delighted and upset some residents in his 800-home subdivision.
In an effort to be a good neighbor, Christmas on Victory only runs for a few hours each night, and there are times Lorek has to direct traffic to keep the line moving at a steady pace, especially during the week of Christmas. Lorek's show also pipes through your radio (on 100.1 FM), and he makes announcements periodically throughout, politely asking onlookers not to block driveways or park on the wrong side of the street.
The majority of the feedback, however, has been positive. A quick look at the Christmas on Victory Facebook page, which has nearly 1,000 Likes and grows during the holiday season, illustrates just how much people appreciate the effort the Loreks put into their holiday display.
"Can't wait to see it!", reads one response. Another one says, "Great show again this year!! We loved it!"
The work for the Loreks begins earlier than you might think.
"Starting in June through October, we're testing things out to make sure everything works," says Lorek. "It's a lot of work preparing each year. But it's the week before Thanksgiving when it starts to get really crazy."
There's hours upon hours of synchronizing the lights to music ("the average song takes five to 10 hours to program"), making sure the lights fade, brighten or burst when they're supposed to, setting up the design elements, checking the wiring and watching weather forecasts. Yes, weather forecasts, "because rain may cause the display not to work at all," says Lorek.
It's all worth it, though, and not just because the lights, music and humor behind the display spreads holiday cheer. The Loreks have added a philanthropic element to their holiday light display.
Since the first one in 2009, the family has donated more than $12,600 to local charities including the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the American Red Cross, and Make a Wish Foundation. The family is trying to raise at least $4,000 for Make a Wish this year.
"We choose the charities based on family and friends who have been affected by these organizations," says Lorek, adding that the heavy-gauge steel donation box in the yard is emptied daily.
The Loreks started their holiday light show when their two children were 10 and 12 years old. Now in high school, Lorek said they don't help put the show together as much as they used to when they were younger. But when he announced to the family he was thinking about not doing the show this year, everyone protested.
"The main reason we do it is because it's fun, and it helps to brightens people's Christmas," says Lorek.
Christmas cheer seems to be the underlying goal. Whether its the large city-wide displays like the Circle of Lights or those extravagant residential light shows, it's all about making people smile during the holiday season.
"It's humbling to see the expressions on people's faces as they come through the display, and to read the letters and notes that they send saying how much joy the display brings to their lives," says Lawson from Reynolds Farm Equipment. "This is simply our gift to the community. I wish we had that feeling year-round."
- Mike Potter