In normal holiday times, thousands of people would go after dark to the Middleborough Festival of Lights at the KOA campground there – gawking at millions of Christmas lights and decorated cabins, sipping hot cocoa, and visiting with Santa, the Grinch, and each other.
This year, the festival will be a drive-through experience only.
But the organizers of the annual event say they hope the pandemic-adjusted celebration will still bring cheer to the community.
“Families have been cooped up in their houses for months,” said Nathan Demers, who chairs the Middleborough Tourism Committee, which runs the festival and other special events in town. “This year is just tough, but this was one thing we could do to get people’s mind off things, and have a little piece of normalcy in otherwise turbulent times.”
Committee member Leilani Dalpe, who started the Festival of Lights seven years ago, said it’s a relief to be able to hold the event in any form – especially since the other traditional Middleborough celebrations had to be canceled or extremely abbreviated this year.
The annual Herring Run Festival, usually held the second weekend in April, was canceled outright, as was the Crantober Fest celebrating cranberries in October.
Another October tradition – ghost tours of Middleborough Town Hall – was open only to 120 people who booked ahead, instead of the usual throngs who venture through the Victorian-style building said by some to be inhabited by the ghost of the original architect who didn’t get credit for his work.
“We’re just happy to bring a little joy this holiday season,” Dalpe said. “It will be sad that [people] can’t see Santa and the Grinch and walk around and get cocoa, but it’s something they can do and stay warm and safe.”
Dalpe came up with the idea for the lights festival when she learned that the local KOA campground, with its winding trails and rustic cabins equipped with electricity, all set on more than 20 acres of fields and woods, closed in mid-November. The scenic setting on Plymouth Street would be perfect for a holiday display of lights, Dalpe thought.
And she knew exactly where to get those lights: her basement.
For years, Dalpe’s parents had turned their home on Cape Cod into a Christmas extravaganza – even adding extra buildings as backdrops for the lights. When her parents died, Dalpe inherited what she described as “acres of Christmas decorations.”
“I wanted [them] to be seen by more than my basement,” she said. “I went to the Tourism Committee and said, ‘Can we do a Christmas festival?’”
The answer was yes.
Volunteers worked for weeks to put up the lights, local businesses donated more fixings, the campground donated labor and electricity, the Middleborough Gas and Electric utility provided bucket trucks and crews to reach the higher spots, and the first festival drew 9,000 people over four weekends in December, Dalpe said.
“We thought it would be a couple hundred,” she said. “We had no idea. We had 15,000 people the next year, and upwards of that ever since. It’s such a community effort. Last year was the first year we actually had to hire some help. We had it down to a science and then the pandemic hit.”
This year, the festival will be held on Dec. 12, 13, 19 and 20 – with tickets selling online for $5 per vehicle at discovermiddleborough.eventbrite.com.
Dalpe said her favorite part of the festival is the night before it opens when the lights go on for a trial run.
“We don’t really know what it looks like until we hit that switch – and when we hit that switch, it takes your breath away. It really does,” she said.
And while she’ll miss watching kids having their pictures taken with Santa and seeing the amazed reactions on everyone’s faces, she said there is one aspect of this year’s more remote celebration that she expects to enjoy: “Not having to make cocoa for thousands of people,” she said.
Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.