Every Thanksgiving for more than a decade, families from across Omaha have piled into their cars and driven downtown.
If the weather is nice, they fill Gene Leahy Mall to take in the sounds of live caroling and sip hot chocolate. If it’s bitterly cold, they huddle in their cars, waiting for the stroke of 6 p.m.
That’s when Mayor Jim Suttle leads a countdown that culminates in the illumination of trees and holiday lights throughout downtown, as well as into North and South Omaha. It’s the official sign that the holiday season is in full swing.
The Holiday Lights Festival, which started out as the Millennium of Lights festival in 1999, has become a holiday tradition for thousands of Omaha families, said event coordinator Ashley McNabney. On even the most bitter nights, the ceremony generally draws 15,000 people. Last year, when the temperatures were in the 50s, more than 30,000 people attended the lighting ceremony. “Everyone gets super into it,” she said.
In the years that McNabney has attended, she’s noticed the lights seem to inspire a sense of joy and community among those who attend. After the lights blink on, many families walk around downtown, admiring the decor, or head to the Holland Performing Arts Center for the annual free holiday concert.
It’s become a tradition that McNabney has come to look forward to each year, and not just because it’s her job.
There are many other events this holiday season, and most of them are free. Among them:
At 7 p.m, just after the city is ablaze with light, the Holland Center, 13th and Douglas Streets, will host a free concert by vocalist Susie Thorne accompanied by the Nebraska Wind Symphony. Each year the concert features holiday classics, McNabney said. Many families plan their Thanksgiving day around the concert, she said, and the children in the crowd are always the most excited about the sing-a-long at the end.
Today through Jan. 6 ConAgra foods will collect nonperishable food items as part of its annual Shine the Light on Hunger campaign. Donations can be placed in blue barrels located throughout downtown today, and at the W. Dale Clark Library, Wells Fargo locations, the ConAgra ice-skating rink and elsewhere throughout Omaha. Last year ConAgra collected enough food for 1 million meals, and this year they’re aiming to collect enough for 1.1 million.
The Wells Fargo Children’s Festival offers free activities for kids including holiday crafts, cookie decorating, trolley rides and more throughout downtown on Dec. 2 from noon to 5 p.m. Activities will take place at Wells Fargo, 20th and Douglas Streets; Omaha Children’s Museum, 500 S. 20th St.; Omaha Police Mounted Patrol Barn, 615 Leavenworth St.; The Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St.; W. Dale Clark Library, 215 S. 15th St.; and The Joslyn Art Museum 2200 Dodge St.
The ConAgra ice rink will stay open longer this year, McNabney said, giving kids home from school on holiday break a bit more time to test their skating skills. The rink opens on Dec. 14 and will stay open through Jan. 6. The rink will be open from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 1 p.m. to midnight Fridays and Saturdays; and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The rink will be closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Admission is $5, which includes skate rentals.
The ice rink also has the distinction of being an extremely popular spot for marriage proposals, McNabney said, though the Holiday Lights Festival draws its share of proposals, too.
“You would not believe how many people get engaged through the Holiday Lights,” she said.
The Holiday Lights Festival closes each year with a 7 p.m. New Year’s Eve fireworks festival, which also draws thousands of spectators. The W. Dale Clark Library opens its fourth floor for elderly and disabled spectators for both the Holiday Lights Festival and the fireworks display, ensuring that anyone can watch, McNabney said.
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