By Christina Patoski
Photography By Sarma Orzis
Denton Live Fall/Winter 2005
Christmas lights, that is. And at Denton’s annual Holiday Lighting Festival you’ll get plenty of wattage, plus other holiday traditions galore.
Christmas was a different holiday before there were shopping malls and credit cards. It was a time for friends and family to get together to share good tidings and spread goodwill. There were no TV ad blitzes or chaser lights. It was the Golden Age of Christmas.
It was this simpler, noncommercial holiday that a group of Dentonites hoped to recapture when they started the Victorian Christmas on the Square celebration back in 1981. The budget was miniscule, only allowing for a few volunteers to decorate the historic 1896 Courthouse with wreaths and garlands. The crowds were also fairly small initially, but the event grew steadily over the years and today it is one of the city’s most popular annual events. Renamed the Denton Holiday Lighting Festival, the event now attracts thousands of revelers to the downtown Square on the first Thursday of December. In fact, due to popular demand, the festivities have been extended to Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
“We’ve always wanted to provide entertainment for the whole family that doesn’t cost them a dime,” explains Yvonne Jenkins, one of the founders of the event. A live Nativity scene, local singers and choirs, bell ringers, and dance troupes perform for free on outdoor stages as well as inside the Courthouse, where the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum stays open late. Horse-driven trolley rides in the Square, along with motorized trolley rides through the adjacent historic district, cost a nominal $1 and lend an air of nostalgia to the festivities.
The festival begins with a community sing-along led by the Denton Community Band. Songbooks, which have been published in the Denton Record-Chronicle, are distributed at the event. And then comes the main event — the annual lighting of the community Christmas tree. The honor of flipping the switch goes to the Denton ISD student who wins the Christmas Tree Coloring Contest. “My favorite part of the night is the collective ‘ahhhhhh’ you hear when the 16,000-plus lights come on,” says Lori Shelton, from the city’s Planning Department. “We’ve worked really hard through the years to get the lights on the trees and the outlining of the buildings just right,” says Peggy Capps, a local real estate agent and president of the Denton County Historical Commission.
One of the event’s most popular features is the Wassail Fest, a contest among downtown merchants to invent their own version of the toasty nonalcoholic cider drink. Look for Wassail Stop signs in the windows of participating stores, then sample and vote for your favorite. As an incentive to get the tasters to cast their ballots, a drawing is held to award prizes to the voters. But don’t expect to take home any wassail recipes — the contest is highly competitive, and most merchants won’t divulge their secrets. Bob Moses, who has won the competition three out of the five times it’s been held, and who’s also the festival’s current chairperson, will only say, “I use 32 ingredients including apple cider, fresh cranberries, cranberry juice, blackberry juice, lime, raisins, and clove sticks.”
Of course, what would Christmas be without the kiddos? There’s plenty for them to do here, including a one-on-one chat with Santa on a carriage ride around the Square. (So don’t forget the camera!) Elsewhere, a series of booths leads youngsters through various arts and crafts activities, including building a bird feeder out of pine cones that they can take home and hang up in the backyard. At the corner of Oak and Locust, WFAA-TV’s Troy Dungan and his Santa’s Helpers collect toys for underprivileged kids.
The grand finale of the event is a concert by Denton’s own Grammy-winning band, Brave Combo. And don’t be surprised to see the mayor and members of city council doing the chicken dance on the Courthouse lawn — it’s part of the tradition!
Started by volunteers, the event still relies on literally thousands of volunteer hours from dedicated locals like Yvonne Jenkins, who served as chairperson of the festival for its first 13 years. They’ve taken what started as a modest celebration and developed it into a powerful expression of community that brings thousands of people together to celebrate the holiday and share in its joy. After all, that’s what Christmas is all about.
THE STORY OF THE LEE WALKER TREE
The community Christmas tree in front of the Courthouse-on-the-Square is the visual centerpiece for the annual Denton Holiday Lighting Festival. Decorated with thousands of multicolored lights, the tree stands in sharp contrast to the pure white lights on the other Courthouse Square trees. While the white lights twinkle throughout the year, transforming the Square into a fairyland nightly, the holiday tree is illuminated only during the month of December. That’s just part of what makes this evergreen so special.
After the city planted the Eastern red cedar in front of the Courthouse, the Denton County Commissioners Court voted in 1992 to dedicate it to the memory of beloved Precinct 3 Commissioner Lee Walker, who had died that summer of cancer. Walker served three consecutive four-year terms on the Commissioners Court, and was the first woman, as well as the first Republican, to be elected to the court. She was known for putting the public good before politics, and served as the president of the County Judges and Commissioners of Texas. One of Walker’s proudest achievements was overseeing the original restoration of the Courthouse-on-the-Square. “I feel like it’s one of my children,” she quipped at the dedication ceremonies in 1987.
Almost 15 years later, the Lee Walker tree has grown to more than 20-feet-tall and it’s still going strong. So, too, is the spirit of Lee Walker, who continues to bring joy to the community each time her tree lights up.