It began decades ago as a humble holiday display of just a few strands of lights. Today, it’s an expansive exhibition of more than a million twinkling, dancing, multi-colored bulbs, spread out across the northeast end of a Layton park.
“It started with a couple of lit deer on display in the park,” said Michelle Howard, recreation superintendent for Layton City. “Since then it has grown to all the animals and elements you see today.”
This year’s version of the city’s “The Lights Before Christmas” display in Layton Commons Park kicks off on Monday, Nov. 25, with a holiday lighting ceremony. The event, emceed by Layton mayor Scott Freitag, will begin at 6 p.m. in the Layton High School auditorium, 440 N. Wasatch Drive, in Layton. Four local elementary school choirs — representing between 50 and 90 children each — will perform seasonal songs for the audience.
Following the program, at 7 p.m., everyone will walk across the street to Layton Commons Park, where they’ll conduct a countdown before throwing a huge switch to turn on the city’s holiday lights for the season. From then on, the lights will be on display from dusk to 11 p.m. daily, through Dec. 31.
Admission to the ceremony and the light display is free.
Howard says that, like the light display itself, the city’s opening ceremony has changed over the years, too. She says in the beginning the city would invite one or two local elementary school choirs to perform in the outdoor amphitheater before everyone walked over to the park.
“We’ve grown since then — we’ve gotten a little bit smarter,” Howard laughed. “We don’t go outside in the cold of the amphitheater anymore. Now we use Layton High, and we invite four elementary school choirs to sing. … Then, like in the old days, we all walk over to the park and the mayor or a council member leads us in a countdown to turn on the lights.”
Along with the ceremony and lighting of the lights that night, Howard said the Heritage Museum of Layton invites folks to stroll over to the museum — adjacent to the Kenley Amphitheater — for hot drinks and cookies.
Then, throughout the month of December, the Layton Rotary club will offer hot chocolate and other treats for sale on Friday, Saturday and Monday nights.
Also, from 6-8 p.m. Dec. 4, Layton City Family Recreation will offer hayrides through the lights. The rides, which are free, are offered on a first-come, first-served basis.
“We see a lot of families and youth groups, and Scout groups, that have made the light display an annual tradition,” Howard said.
Visitors are welcome to either walk through the display or use their vehicles to drive through it, according to Howard. A drive-thru tunnel, built in-house by the parks and rec department, features more than 14,000 LED lights.
In the last couple of years, the city’s parks and recreation department has added a number of features to the display, including a penguin and gorilla scene, and a giant lighted tree, according to Howard. More than 200 animal scenes are included in the display.
“We try to add more features and lights every year,” she said.
Howard said that making the annual lighting display look good takes quite a bit of time.
“In general, the staff works on these lights year-round,” she said. “When the lights go back into storage, they start working on replacing lights and making sure everything’s working — and if we need to replace strands. We do that during the off-season.”
Howard said it takes about 4,000 man-hours annually between the setup and the off-season preparation. They start wrapping the trees in lights in September, then bring out the display elements a couple of weeks before The Lights Before Christmas opens.
And for those who simply can’t wait for Monday night? Howard offers a spoiler.
“If you come by early in the morning — between 6 and 7:30 this week — the lights will usually be on,” she said. “So if you want to get a sneak peek, that’s the time to drop by.”