Slay Bells

It's an annual spectacle, a seasonal ritual, a sight, all right. On December 3, some 15,000 colored lights energized by five miles of electrical wire complete the yearly zapping of good taste at Denver's City and County Building.

Legend has it that Denver is home to the worldwide tradition of holiday lights. The back of this year's greeting card sent out by the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau tells the sentimental story of "young David Jonathan Sturgeon," who on Christmas Eve 1914 was "too sick to be carried down to the family Christmas tree." His grandfather, "pioneer electrician D.D. Sturgeon, dipped some ordinary light bulbs in red and green paint, strung them on primitive electric lines and draped them over one of the outside trees" so young David could see them from his bedroom window.

"Hundreds of visitors came by carriage from miles away just to see the brilliant, glowing Christmas tree. The Denver Post covered the story, creating the first written record of outdoor electric holiday lights. Several years later, the newspaper began an outdoor lighting display contest and from there the tradition spread."

Apparently out of control, judging from the conglomeration at the City and County Building. On Christmases past, the display has included such bizarre combinations as Frosties and toy soldiers guarding a manger --offensive not so much because the nativity scene is on government property but because the snowmen lacked any aesthetic sophistication whatsoever, because the toy soldiers were so antithetical to the birth of the prince of peace and because the whole thing shared less than equal billing with a monstrous News4 sign lit up like the Star of Bethlehem itself.

Challenges to this inartful blending of church and state have gone all the way to the Supreme Court, but to hear city attorneys and other officials tell it, local government has always "prevailed"--as if they're proud of their garish insult to the Constitution.

You can only do so much humbugging, considering that the whole thing's put together by five electricians on the public office buildings crew--none of whom, according to holiday lights supervisor Ricardo Montoya, have any background in art or design. Montoya's crew has been doing the work since 1986. He says the electricians start in September, "doing repairs and building new fixtures." For the overall scheme, he says, "we have four colors to work with. We start off working with the four colors, and everybody decides what kind of a theme we're going to go with. In the past it's been wreaths, stars, snowflakes, trees; this year our theme is bells. It's really informal, just guys. Somebody will have an idea, sometimes the idea develops the year before when somebody's building the fixture and says, 'Let's do this next year.' It's pretty much open among these guys here."

Although Montoya and his crew spend nine good months working for an entity that allegedly conducts the serious business of state, this time of year it sounds more like Santa's workshop. "We have the bells--they're the outline of a bell made out of wrought iron--and on that we attach rope light," Montoya explains. "They'll be along the third-floor windows, and what we call the niche--the front step--and on city council windows. We have three niches on the north and south side of the building and on the front wings, and we swap around all our fixtures, which consist of the Nutcracker soldiers, Christmas tree, double-sided angel, snowmen and trees. The main characters on the steps are the hoedown barn, elves, and across from it on one side of the steps goes our manger scene."

If this is enough to bring out the Scrooge in you, there are alternatives.
For example, the City of Westminster promises a somewhat more aesthetically unified "magical elf village with 23 busy elves, a 20-foot-tall sparkling Christmas tree, and our very own Westminster Sleigh Company"; that city's annual lighting ceremony is Tuesday, December 8, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Westminster City Hall, 4800 West 92nd Avenue.

Golden hosts a candlelight walk down Washington Avenue at 6:30 p.m. on December 4. You'll have to put up with the KIMN Chicken, the Gilded Lillies of the West, the Charles Dickens Carolers and Up With People, but if you can stand all that, you'll be rewarded by a visit from the Coors Santa and his Vice Elves.

And Boulder's official celebrations seem gloriously pagan: There's no display at City Hall, but an "Enchanted Forest" theme display along the Pearl Street Mall involves trees and animals. A separate parade of lights is slated for 6 p.m. on December 5.

Back at the North Pole--aka the Denver City and County Building--there's "great excitement," Montoya says. "The only thing we're pushing this year is, our nativity scene and reindeer and Santa set are getting quite old. We're really making a push for the public to buy the cards from the Keep the Lights Foundation so we can send this stuff in for repairs. They're in their later years."

--C.J. Janovy

 
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