By Wade Coggeshall
INDIANAPOLIS — A holiday tradition marked a special milestone this year.
Circle of Lights celebrated its 50th anniversary Friday evening on Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis.
The event includes live entertainment and a visit from Santa before the flipping of a switch that powers 52 garland strands containing 4,784 color lights strung on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. In addition, the decorations include 26 large toy soldiers and sailors that surround the monument, along with 26 peppermint sticks.
"We find that this has become a very big tradition for families in central Indiana," said Jennifer Hanson, communications director for Indianapolis Downtown, Inc., one of the organizers of Circle of Lights. "I've talked with people on-site who are grandparents and are with their kids and grandkids. They come every year as a family to kick off the holiday season together. We see that time and time again. We know this is the holiday kick-off for a lot of people. And new people coming to town, we see them making it a tradition. It's really cool to see."
More than 100,000 spectators were estimated to have attended the event this year. That sea of humanity filled Monument Circle and stretched as far south as Washington Street on the southside of the circle, where the stage was erected.
There they watched RTV-6 meteorologist Kevin Gregory emcee a bill of entertainers singing classic Christmas carols. The list included Tony and Tyler Jonas, a father/son duet from Plainfield, and special guest Angela Brown of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra's "Yuletide Celebration."
RTV-6 conducted two auditions for Circle of Lights talent. The process normally draws more than a hundred candidates. This year, Hanson says, it was closer to 150.
"It's (a tough choice) when you only have five or six slots to fill," she said. "We see a lot of very talented people."
Circle of Lights includes an annual coloring contest, sponsored by Indiana Members Credit Union. This year's winner was 7-year-old Brilye Schmitz, a second-grader at Elim Learning Center in Clayton. She lives in Coatesville and her parents are Nikki Clark and Robert Schmitz.
Her drawing is a depiction of Monument Circle during the holidays, complete with toy soldiers and Santa. Schmitz's reward for winning was getting to flip the switch on the circle's holiday lights. She also got to meet Santa, who arrived at the festivities aboard a Honda Ridgeline.
"It's really grown," Hanson said of the coloring contest. "We've gotten close to 3,000 entries in the last few years. Sometimes they come in after the deadline."
To mark the event's 50th anniversary, Indianapolis Downtown, Inc. started an essay contest this year. Children ages 13 to 18 were invited to write about community traditions and what they mean to all of us. Three winners were selected: Taylor Allen of Indianapolis, a senior at Perry Meridian High School; Hannah Austin, a junior at Zionsville Community High School; and Paige Waterstreet of Whitestown, a senior at Zionsville.
Hanson says IDI will assess the essay contest to see if it becomes an annual part of Circle of Lights.
"We think the essays were really good," she said.
The 50th anniversary also included special recognition to the contractors of Quality Connection and the members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Union 481. Both have been responsible for installing and removing the visuals and infrastructure for Circle of Lights since it started.
"We know this is extremely important to the community, so we want them to know they're part of a special tradition," Hanson said.
IBEW 481 had a large banner at the celebration that people could sign. That was placed in a time capsule along with entries from the coloring and essay contests, a proclamation from Mayor Greg Ballard, Andre Carson's congressional record, and a show script signed by Brown.
"With this time capsule, we want the next generations to know what happened at the 50th anniversary," Hanson said. "We think this will be a really cool aspect of commemorating the 50th anniversary."
Some of the contractors involved with Circle of Lights have helped since the event started in 1962.
"They've talked about how different it was (then)," Hanson said. "We know a lot of people in the community have attended every year since then too. We love hearing those stories."
And those people seem to come, no matter what the conditions are. Last year it was a balmy 60 degrees. This year was much more seasonal, with gusty winds and temperatures dropping into the 30s.
"Still, all those people are bundled up and having a great time," Hanson said. "Each year it just amazes me that 100,000 people come out to enjoy it, no matter the weather."