On Christmas Eve 1914, ten-year-old David Jonathan Sturgeon was in bed at his home at 4408 West 34th Avenue in Denver, too sick to go downstairs and join his family around the Christmas tree. David Dwight "D.D." Sturgeon, a pioneering Denver electrician, decided to cheer up his son, so he dipped lightbulbs in red and green paint, connected them to electrical wire, and hung them in a pine tree outside David's window, brightening his holiday and inspiring people from miles away to come marvel at the sight of the illuminated tree.
Although there had been a few earlier outdoor decorating attempts around the country, they dimmed compared to the glowing reports provided by Denver Post reporter Pinky Wayne, and enthusiastic city boosters of a century ago were soon touting this as the first illuminated outdoor Christmas tree. The next year, Sturgeon neighbors decorated their trees, too, and the tradition lived on. (Sadly, young David did not; he succumbed to a different illness.)
Denver was soon in the spotlight of a national craze. D.D. Sturgeon was dubbed the "Father of Yule Lighting." Wayne organized the country's first outdoor-lighting contest in Denver in 1918, attracting hundreds of contestants. Wayne's efforts inspired manufacturers to come up with affordable products that would work indoors and outdoors regardless of the weather, and as a result, electric billboards across the country began to flash with colored globes, giving rise to flashing neon signs.
By 1919, the official city electrician, John Malpiede, had caught the fever and replaced the lights in the Denver Civic Center with colored globes of red and green for the holidays. The next year, he put an illuminated Christmas tree in front of the State Capitol. "Six years ago," Wayne reported in 1926, "when The Post sponsored a program of outdoor Christmas lighting to link Denver with a joyous expression of Christmas cheer and good will, we little thought it would reach such dimensions. ...In 1925, Denver won title as the Christmas city of the world.'"
Beautiful, and increasingly garish. After Quigg Newton took over as mayor in 1947, he brought in an outside artist to redesign the holiday display with a more modern look, creating a huge uproar in the process. "He discovered that Denverites like things that are garish and tasteless," historian Tom Noel pointed out in 2014 (when the original version of this column was published). Malpiede was brought back the next year, and continued lighting up the city until he retired in 1956.
Denver residents continued to embrace the tradition he'd started, and fifty years later showed they were no more amenable to change. New Denver mayor John Hickenlooper learned that the hard way in 2004, when he suggested replacing the "Merry Christmas" sign at the top of the City and County Building with the more inclusive "Happy Holidays" — which made sense not just because Denver is home to more than Christians, but also because the lighting display glows from the day before Thanksgiving through Christmas and into late January, as a cheerful — if over-the-top — welcome for visitors to the National Western Stock Show.
But Hickenlooper was quickly persuaded to leave the sign alone. "Over the past several days, it has become clear to me that there is strong community sentiment to maintain the 'Merry Christmas' sign, and I am glad to oblige," he said at the time. "My intention was never to disrespect or slight anyone or any religious tradition. I apologize to anyone who may have been offended or mistakenly felt I was being anti-Christmas. 'Hickenlooper' might have two Os, but I am not Scrooge. We are happy to keep the 'Merry Christmas' sign."
There have been some successful changes over the years, though. During the cash-strapped ’80s, the budget-busted city was going to dispense with the display, until the Keep the Lights Foundation came through with enough cash to leave the lights on. (Sturgeon Electric Company, the business that D.D. Sturgeon founded in 1912, has never been in the holiday-lighting business itself, but it contributed to that campaign; today it's a large industrial-construction company responsible for a lot of the power lines across the country. Although it's now a subsidiary of a holding company, it continues to be based in Colorado, in Henderson.)
The Denver City and County Building display is now safely back in the city budget, and all of those bulbs have been replaced with LED lights that are not only more energy-efficient (they use only a third of the energy of previous years), but allow for the colors to be changed with the flick of a switch — creating those recent celebrations of pink, purple, red and, of course, orange-and-blue causes through the year.
But it's what's below the lights — the Nativity scene on the steps — that has always created the most controversy. In order to keep church and state separate, over the years Denver has added a number of non-religious figures to the display, including giant nutcrackers, reindeer, candy canes and Santa's workshop. But even so, in 1981, four individuals — who described themselves as "tax-paying non-Christians" — filed a complaint in Denver District Court alleging that the Nativity scene erected on city property and funded through tax revenues was a violation of their rights. They asked that Denver not only be prohibited from displaying the scene, but forced to sell it at public auction. The case went to trial in 1982, when aptly named historian Noel talked about "virgin birth" and then-mayor William McNichols testified that he'd received "thousands" of letters concerning the display, which generated a feeling of goodwill "that is rarely matched during the rest of the year."
Ultimately, the court determined that Denver's Nativity scene did not violate Article II, Section 4 of the Colorado Constitution — the so-called Preference Clause, which states that no preference shall be "given by law to any religious denomination or mode of worship" — and four years later, in September 1986, the Colorado Supreme Court concurred. "Considered in the context of the larger display," the judges ruled, the Denver Nativity scene "does not violate the Preference Clause of the Colorado Constitution."
In the four decades since that ruling, the Colorado Supreme Court's position has only been strengthened by U.S. Supreme Court decisions — and the addition of even more junk to the display has helped, too. Consider it the Santa Clause: While the holiday extravaganza may insult aesthetics, it keeps Colorado constitutional. To combat the filching of the Baby Jesus — by radio pranksters, not cranky atheists — the Nativity scene is now covered in glass, like a square snow globe. At some pivotal point now lost to history, Santa's workshop was replaced with a workshop full of country-music elves; the nutcrackers surrendered to old age. But angels on high still oversee the action.
And they will be aglow from now through January 21, when the National Western Stock Show rolls out of town. The tradition of keeping the lights on at civic buildings through that annual event is almost as old as the outdoor lighting tradition itself; city boosters wanted to provide an off-site thrill for those hitting the annual agricultural extravaganza, which got its start in 1906. "So famous Is the civic center display that convention trains have been stopped so that those aboard could view it," reported the Steamboat Pilot in 1955. "Many homes, industrial, and in situational lighting and window displays also will remain in place and turned on nightly; to make a trip around town a thrilling feature for those in Denver for the Stock Show." But that's another story.
For now, let there be light.
This column has been updated since the original was published in December 2014.