The Unsung Holiday Hero: Using Lighting to Illuminate the Season



November – it brings the much-anticipated ski season to our valley but it’s also the time of year when Steamboat gets plugged in. Amidst the skiers and tourists arriving for the holiday season, if you look closely you can see the holiday lights going up on trees all around town.

The tradition of tree lighting originated in Germany and dates back to the 17th century when people fixed candles to their trees with wax and pins. But it was Thomas Edison who introduced the world to the first electric lights in the late 1800s. He displayed the lights outside of his laboratory where people could see them, creating the first display of lights separate from a Christmas tree. Several years later, Edward Johnson, an inventor who studied under Edison, designed the first string of lights, made up of 80 small electric bulbs. In 1890, the strings of lights were mass produced and decorating for the holidays became popular with retail shops. Several years later, the lights became a fixture in homes as the cost of electricity decreased. Today, people all over the world use holiday lights to create that holiday magic that helps define the season.

Back in Steamboat Springs, we know a thing or two about holiday lighting. Lincoln Avenue is lined with lights beginning as early as September.

“We like to get the lights up for Restaurant Week at the end of September,” Lisa Popovich, executive director of Main Street Steamboat Springs says. “It gives such a nice ambiance to downtown, especially during a week when there are so many people walking around.”

Ambiance is key and is one of the biggest reasons Popovich continues to light up downtown each fall and winter. When she started at Main Street in 2015, there were no lights at all – just “sparkly snowflakes and spurs.”

Enter local company Lightscapes, which helps transform Steamboat into a winter wonderland.

Owner Dustin Lindahl and his team were able to figure out a way to string lights on the trees downtown and plug them into the roofs of the buildings rather than into the ground. This means that each business on Lincoln Avenue that has a tree plugged into its roof pays the electric bill for the duration of the lighting period. Popovich is quick to say that the lights are so energy efficient, they are very affordable for the businesses to run. And the effect is pure holiday magic. Strolling down Lincoln Avenue in winter, with sparkling lights and softly falling snow, pedestrians experience a beautiful, picture-perfect atmosphere.

That’s one of the reasons lighting was extended to Yampa Street, just a block below Lincoln Avenue, year-round. With bars and restaurants lining the street, it gets a lot of foot traffic. Creating a special atmosphere on the street creates memories for visitors and locals alike. Another benefit is safety. “When it starts to get dark early in the fall, the lights turn on,” Popovich explains, “they truly help light the sidewalk and allow people to see more clearly.”

Another area of town where holiday lighting abounds is the Steamboat Ski Area. Gazing at the mountain area, it’s easy to picture yourself in a magical snow globe. The ski area is lit up as soon as ski season starts, delighting visitors from around the world.

In addition to the mountain, public spaces and downtown, Steamboat is known for its elaborate displays of residential lights.Lindahl started his company in 2002 with the goal of transforming and brightening winter for their clients. “I’ve always loved lighting and the difference it makes,” Lindahl explains.  “As a kid, my dad would do an amazing lighting display on our home… I remember him placing in the top three each year in Steamboat’s lighting contest.” His company strives to bring that holiday magic to each project, working to create “memorable experiences such as grandchildren being ‘wowed’ as their sledding hill is illuminated by the twinkling lights, a festive atmosphere for a holiday dinner party or sitting by the fire sipping hot cocoa enjoying the ambiance of the lighting.”  

Lighting up their property is a favorite tradition of full-time resident and Lightscapes client Danielle Mohn.“It’s magical,” Mohn describes, “it honestly makes me smile every time we pull into the driveway.”

Steamboat locals agree that having holiday lights from November to April is the best way to light up the short, dark winter days.

Michael Rasa, a second homeowner in Steamboat. He loves having his lights on during the holiday season to make his house feel like home: cozy, warm, bright and welcoming.

“The lights add to the flavor of the holiday,” he says, “mountains, snow, winter, Steamboat…it’s all there.”

Having lights isn’t all magical though – there is a lot of maintenance which goes into it. Mohn remembers a time when a moose separated the electric cord. Another time a prankster re-arranged lit reindeer on a lawn as if it were mating season. There are of course, more mundane problems, like broken branches or faulty bulbs. In Steamboat, the number of lights used varies quite a bit from property to property. It could be 500-1000 at some houses to tens of thousands at others. Luckily, the strings are always evolving, and more energy efficient bulbs have been created throughout the years. The LED bulb, for example, is one of today’s most energy efficient and rapidly developing lighting technologies. Residential LEDs use 75% less energy than incandescent lighting. According to most residents who professionally light their properties, once you start, you’ll never go back.

The holiday season is a magical time of year that becomes even more magical when illuminated. As Brian Erhart, Lightscape’s production specialist put it, “you can feel the holiday spirit truly come alive. The most enjoyable part of my job is hearing people say how much these lights made their holiday, their family time or their vacation so memorable.”

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