SPRINGFIELD -- On Thanksgiving night, Lauren, my 6-year-old niece, begged me to accompany her to Bright Nights in Springfield. My protests fell on deaf ears, so I piled into the backseat with her.
OK, I thought to myself, how tacky can it be? As we entered Forest Park, a 17-foot-tall Cat in the Hat extended a sweeping welcome. Cindy Lou Who waved. Deer leaped over the road up ahead.
And this ol' Scrooge smiled -- for the entire 2-mile drive-through holiday show.
Lily-pad leaping frogs played on the pond. A penguin caught a fish. Santa tossed packages into his sleigh. Elves on toboggans flew downhill. And the 8,000-watt Grinch who stole Christmas kept on grinning. There was so much to see that I missed the 18-foot-tall jack-in-the-box jumping up.
Bright Nights started in 1995 with a mailing from a lighting designer in Hickory, N.C. Judith Matt, now president of the Spirit of Springfield Inc., the nonprofit organization that produces Bright Nights, read the mailing from Carpenter Decorating and thought, we could do this.
She decided to highlight the city's playful past. Theodor Geisel, author of the Dr. Seuss books, was born on Mulberry Street in Springfield. Board game manufacturer Milton Bradley, creator of Candy Land, was based in neighboring East Longmeadow. The designer set to work.
"About 75,000 cars visited the first year" in 1995, Matt said recently. "Many people came more than once." In the fourth year, 900 buses toured Bright Nights. In recent years, attendance has fallen to an average of 40,000 cars and 600 buses.
The 500,000 lights in Bright Nights consume $325 in electricity a night, according to Matt, and draw visitors not just from New England, but from the Midwest and Europe, she said. "Springfeld was never a destination in the winter. Now it is."
Over the years, the number of displays has doubled, nodding to multiculturalism and patriotism with a menorah, a tribute to Kwanzaa, an American flag, and a Garden of Peace.
The biggest single sculpture, containing 5,600 lights, is an imposing replica of a four-story Victorian mansion that was razed in 1959 to make way for Interstate 91. The mansion stood not far from the house of lights. The owner, Everett Hosmer Barney, was a wealthy 19th-century Springfield businessman who invented the modern ice skate and donated much of the land that is now Forest Park.
Over the years, Matt said, there have been dozens of marriage proposals and two weddings at Bright Nights. Best of all, she said, are the letters from the pint-sized set, like the boy who asked if he could live in the Toyland section of Bright Nights.
In an e-mail to her uncle the next day, my niece Lauren wrote: "Last night me and Jan went to Bright Nights and it was pretty and beautiful and it turned [out] better than Jan expected." Amen.
Jan Gardner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.