Embrace Good Traditions

Editor’s note:
George Smith is a co-founder of Marshall’s Wonderland of Lights. He recently sent me this article. It’s something we should all think around.

Traditions, good traditions, the ones that make us smile, that give our kids and grandkids pleasure, that bring back fond memories should be cherished and protected and embraced, revered even.

Marshall has such a tradition, one that is more than 30 years old and has brought more people to this city and produced more smiling faces than any other event…ever.

The Wonderland of Lights is not another festival; it is an institution that must be preserved, changed to fit the times and cultivated with love and reverence.

When Wonderland of Lights was conceived, Marshall was in the midst of the worst economic period since the Great Depression. There were more empty storefronts downtown than were occupied buildings; 18 of the top 22 retail establishments had given up and locked their doors.

From Day 1, the Wonderland of Lights was never about “lights”; it was about the spirit in the hearts of the special people in a special place called Marshall. As co-chairman with J.C. Hughes, Jr. for first five years of the holiday lighting festival, I have a personal bias in making sure the festival not only stays viable…but grows as it glows annually.
A vast majority of the citizens embraced the concept of Wonderland from Day 1. And from the onset, the Chamber of Commerce, Tony Bridge at the radio station, and the News Messenger pushed the idea because it served as a beacon of light in a dark era of the city’s history.

What was so special about Wonderland of Lights?

One night in the first year, I was going around the square, replacing burned out bulbs and talking to visitors. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman and four children get out of a car. Something made me watch them. The kids, 10 to about four years of age, were running around under the lighted trees and staring gawk-eyed at the courthouse with its 100,000-plus lights.

The woman watched them and, suddenly, slumped to the ground. I ran over to check on her. “Are you okay?”

She looked up and big tears were coursing down her cheeks. “This is just so beautiful. This is just so incredibly beautiful.”

Her story tore through my heart.

Her husband had left, walked out of the marriage a few weeks before; she had no job, no money and four small children. And Christmas was less than a month away.

She looked up at the lights. “This is our Christmas! I bring the kids up every night and let them run and play and marvel at the beauty.

“It’s all they’ll have this year for Christmas.”

I turned away on the pretense of getting something  to write on which gave me time to wipe my tears away.

I got the lady’s contact information that night and the next day started a “telephone tree” to see if folks could help.

Within 48 hours, the spirit of Marshall rose up: The lady had a job, free day care for the kids, enough money to keep the rented house outside of town and utilities, groceries, and abundant Christmas presents and clothes for all the children. This newspaper gifted her with a Christmas tree, lights and ornaments and a shopping trip to local merchants.

The spirit of Christmas. The spirit of Marshall.

Fast forward a few years. There was an incredibly likable high school girl who volunteered to help string lights and work at the old city hall stage on the intricate task of making light panels in chicken wire.

She was happy, helpful, diligent and hard working. She always carried a smile on her face to share with others.

One night she didn’t show up to work; we learned she had been killed in a car wreck.

The day after her funeral someone put up a small decorated Christmas tree at the gravesite; one of her friend, knowing she loved teddy bears, put a small bear in a glass jar by her gravestone.

The tree and the bear were stolen.

Within a couple of days, there were five small, decorated Christmas trees and more than 10 teddy bears in jars surrounding her gravesite.

The spirit of Christmas. The spirit of Marshall.

Of course, there were detractors for the projects, aginners who didn’t like change, who didn’t like the Chamber or the newspaper and went out of their way to make their feelings known. One lived in a very nice neighborhood and when all his neighbors decorated their houses and landscaping…this resident held on to an intense curmudgeonry with a fierce determination.

About the first of December that year, the resident left on a family vacation and returned to find the house and landscaping ablaze with thousands of tiny white lights, courtesy of his neighbors, who even ran extension cords to their homes to provide power.

The spirit of Christmas. The spirit of Marshall.

Wonderland of Lights is not about Christmas lights; it never has been. Don’t let the special spirit diminish. Embrace and enhance this tradition that only Marshall possesses.

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