A winter wonderland in lights

The Neaults’ display on Silver Creek Road in Harvey takes visitors to the North Pole, in lights. (Photo courtesy of Valerie Neault)

By Jim Pennell

The Christmas season is always a time when decorations are put up outside of houses, but some folks in the area go well beyond just putting up a string of lights along the eaves. For the past 35 years the Marquette Board of Light and Power has sponsored a Holiday Lighting Contest for its customers. What started as a simple contest with a handful of entrants has now grown to a highly anticipated yearly event.

“We usually have from 35 to 45 entrants in six categories with three places in each category,” said Noreen Collins, Marquette Board of Light and Power community relations coordinator. “It makes it pretty tough to be a judge. We try to get BLP employees that have done it before to help out. Judges have to check out and compare each display and also have the ability to move entrants from one category to another if they feel it’s in the competitor’s best interest,

“It’s a serious contest where people take pride in their entries and really compete with each other,” Collins added. “The phones at the office will be ringing from now on with people asking when the judging is and where to drop off the entry forms. People also want to be part of the bus tours we organize that visit all the displays.”

John and Mary Kiltinen stand with the centennial card they spent months collecting signatures for, which is now on display in Finland. (Photo by Katherine Larson)

The six categories include Elfin Magic for small displays, Frosty’s Favorites for medium displays and Child’s Bright Delight for the large displays. There is also a Rudolph’s Rookie category for first-time entrants, North Pole Neighborhood for three or more houses to enter together and the Winner’s Circle for entrants who have placed in the last three years.

Rich and Valerie Neault on Silver Creek Road in Harvey entered the contest to show off their decorations and are now members of the Winner’s Circle.

“We’ve always enjoyed decorating the house and our displays seemed to get bigger and bigger each year. I said to my husband ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get more people to come and look at our lights?’ We decided to enter the contest because whether or not we won we would be telling people ‘Hey, we’re decorated. Come look at our lights!” Valerie said. “We entered in 2013 and took second place in Elfin Magic. We took second again in 2014 and 2015 and then in 2016 we entered in Elfin Magic but the judges moved us up to Frosty’s Favorites, where we took first place. Last year it took us 90 hours to get everything up and this year it took 125 hours because we’ve added some things. We probably would have been in Child’s Bright Delight, but now we’re in the Winner’s Circle for the next three years.”

A group of people take a break from building a Sauna in Negaunee. The U.P. is home to the largest contingent of people of Finnish descent in the United States. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Regional History Center)

John and Stacey Carter on Vandenboom Road in Marquette Township won as Rudolph’s Rookie in 2009, took first place in the large category for three years after that and are now in the Winner’s Circle. Their house is more than just a display of lights.

“We have a 300-foot walking trail for the public and we had close to 5,000 people walk through last year. The yard has its own Facebook page. We’ll take photos of people in the yard, post it on the page and then people can share them with their friends,” John said.

“We plan a Santa visit every year, and last year so many people showed up that parking became a problem. The sheriff’s department and state police showed up to do crowd control and threatened to shut us down,” he added with a laugh.

“It’s fun to come up with new ideas. There’s a little bit of everything,” Stacey said. “From a nativity area to a Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus dollhouse you can look inside and, it even has a suspended cage with an inflatable Grinch inside. We put up around 20,000 to 25,000 lights and 150 blow molds, which are the lighted plastic figurines.”

A portion of the Jean Sibelius memorial in Helsinki. Sibelius is widely recognized as his country’s greatest composer and, through his music, is often credited with having helped Finland to develop a national identity during its struggle for independence from Russia. His likeness appeared on the Finnish 100 note, prior to the adoption of the euro. (Photo by Katherine Larson)

The Carters start putting their display up in the beginning of October and, if all goes well, they have it all up and running by December 1. The decorations are always evolving, which can be challenging.

“We put the big stuff out first and if we have something new we design it and then try to find a spot for it,” John said.

Gary Bell’s display on Tierney Street by Bothwell School has been a holiday institution for years.


“I’ve been doing it for over 30 years, just about since it started. I’ve placed in the contest every year. I think I’ve won 15 first places. I started out small when my kids were young and every year it just got bigger,” Bell said. “Back then there was a house around the corner from me that was doing lights and we got into a friendly neighborhood competition. We’d be in the contest and he’d get first and I’d get second and then I’d get first and he’d get second. He’s since moved out of the area but I’m still going.”

Bell’s display is also much more than just lights.

The Finnish Orthodox cathedral in Marquette’s sister city of Kajaani, built there to accommodate the many thousands of Karelian refugees who left the eastern portions of Finland when Russia took that area over, is pictured. When the Marquette Choral Society visited the cathedral during its trip to Finland this year, the choral society sang a song and, in turn, listened appreciatively to a song sung by the cathedral’s music director. (Photo by Katherine Larson)

“I have different areas with different themes,” he continued. “I have around 30,000 lights, 15 inflatables, 25 or 30 blow molds and some wood pieces I’ve made. I lay out what seems like hundreds of extension cords. I’ve gotten to the point where I may add one or two new things, but really I’m happy with the way things are. It takes me long enough to put up what I have now. It’s all organized and I’ve been doing things a certain way for years, but it still takes me 100 hours to get everything up.”

When asked if he sees a time when he’ll no longer put up the display Gary laughed.

“I’ll keep doing it as long as I can,” he said. “When I retire it will make it a little easier to set everything up because I won’t have to work.”

The deadline for entering the contest is December 12 and more information and registration forms can be found on the Board of Light and Power’s website. There’s still time to throw your Santa hat in the ring and go after one of the many prizes. The only limits are your imagination and the number of extension cords you have.


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