The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 24, 2012

Spear: Holiday Lights bring back tradition

By Joe Spear
The Free Press

— For those who remember the holiday light displays of years past in downtown Mankato, North Broad Street and Mary Circle, Friday’s Kiwanis Holiday Lights unveiling in Sibley Park had to renew memories of Christmas past.

As a Kiwanis volunteer at the opening night, I saw first hand the impact of the million light display. Hundreds of cars purred through the streets of Sibley Park viewing a display the likes of which, I’ll venture, has never been seen in Mankato. Families took to the walkways on a brisk November night, but they were able to get warmed up in “Santa’s House” and see the old fellow, as well as his reindeer.

The 100-or so member Downtown Kiwanis Club, hundreds of volunteers and generous donors Mankato Area Foundation and CHS, as well as dozens of others, made it happen.

An article in the December issue of Mankato Magazine (a Free Press sister publication)  tracks the history of holiday lights in Mankato from the grand displays of lights and trees in downtown Mankato in the 1940s to the re-igniting of the tradition in Mankato and North Mankato neighborhoods of North Broad Street and Mary Circle in the 1970s and 1980s.

The narrative recounts the efforts of Lee Schweim, who lived on Mankato’s North Broad Street, and Dan and Mary Jo Menden, of North Mankato, who started their Mary Circle display as part of the annual Free Press holiday decorating competition.

Schweim and the Mendens garnered the support of both cities in eventually bringing displays from 1,000 lights to more than 100,000 in their neighborhoods. Mankato put in electric outlets on North Broad and North Mankato turned Mary Circle into a one-way during Christmas.

In the 1980s and early 1990s the area’s “Celebration of Lights” made the top 10 tour group events for the state and received statewide news coverage and even a visit from Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich, who gave participating residents a plaque.

Mankato’s new display has a connection to the displays of Christmas past. Some of the lights and displays from the neighborhood have been used in the Kiwanis display.

As Downtown Kiwanis member and organizer Kyle Mrozak told Mankato Magazine, the Kiwanis Holiday Lights stems from the earlier traditions and hopefully will make its own history.

Joe Spear is the editor of The Free Press. Contact him at 344-6382 or jspear@mankatofreepress.com.