Dover's Festival of Lights, scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 1, means the Christmas season has begun in Dover. Originally scheduled for Monday, the event was postponed due to rain.

This year’s Festival of Lights, the customary opening of the holiday season in the city of Dover, will feature many traditional favorites as well as serving as the start of some new events downtown.

The event begins, regardless of the weather, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 1, on The Plaza in front of City Hall. The highlight will be the actual lighting of the city’s Christmas tree by Mayor Carleton E. Carey Sr.

The annual celebration — now going its third decade — is co-sponsored by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation and the Downtown Dover Partnership.

“The partnership is looking at this celebration as the kickoff of the holiday season for downtown Dover,” said Gigi Windley, emcee for the Festival of Lights. “We have new events such as the Home for the Holidays, which starts Dec. 5, and the holiday parade.”

Santa Claus, who makes his inaugural Dover appearance at the Festival of Lights, also will be on hand from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Dec. 5 to hear children’s Christmas wishes at the corner of Bradford and Loockerman streets, Windley said.

Times past
But while lighting up the city’s Christmas tree really gets the holiday season started downtown, it wasn’t always such a big event.

“I can remember when it was just one tree, and now we’ve got all kinds lit up,” said Parks and Recreation Director Zachery Carter, who has worked for the city for almost 21 years.
Bill Cooper, superintendent of the city’s grounds division recalls a time in the 1970s when Christmas decorations were put up by the city’s electric department.

“We used to have strands of lights across Loockerman Street, reaching from building to building,” he said. “Then they did away with that and had artificial wreaths with lights hanging from the light poles.”

Some stores, including the old Dover Hardware, contributed their own displays to the Loockerman Street lights, Cooper recalled.

The big tree in front of City Hall also featured strings of large, old-fashioned bulbs, although they ran in a straight line from the tip of the tree to the perimeter of its lowest branches.

But that also changed, and all of the trees now have lights strung in random patterns throughout.

This year, the trunk of the big tree is enveloped in blue lights, while white lights glow among the branches.

The lights also have changed over the years, Cooper said. The larger bulbs have given way to smaller LEDs, which although they’re more expensive than bulbs, last years longer.

An enjoyable task
Putting on the Festival of Lights involves the efforts of more than a few city employees and begins early on the day of the celebration. The work is coordinated between Cooper’s grounds department, which prepares the trees and strings the lights, and Carter’s recreation personnel, who do everything from setting up the stage and bleachers to ensuring Santa Claus has enough candy canes to hand out to waiting children.

Grounds workers start several days beforehand inspecting the wires — many are left in the trees year-round so they don’t have to be put up every year — and replacing defective or burned-out bulbs. Cooper estimates the city uses more than 30,000 bulbs, strung along more than 5.6 miles of wire, to light The Plaza and the rest of downtown.

Recreation department workers start early on the day of the festival by collecting bleachers from city various parks. At about 4 p.m. Dover Police close down the road in front of City Hall so the bleachers and stage can be assembled and sound equipment set up. Boxes also will be set up in front of the stage to collect donations of canned goods for the needy.

Carter’s crews must have all preparations finished by the festival’s 6 p.m. start time, and then must reverse the process when it’s all over.

Cooper said his grounds maintenance personnel look forward to their yearly work on the lights.

“They take it seriously, and they like doing it,” he said. “They like being part of something people take so much pleasure in.”

“This is the state capital, and we should have the nicest Christmas lights in the community,” Cooper said.

Grounds maintenance specialist Alicia Rabenold-Connelly always looks forward to getting the Christmas lights ready for their annual unveiling.

“We can sit back and watch the people come out and look and point at the lights,” she said. “To see all the kids’ faces light up, and some of the adults, too, it’s just magical.”

That’s also the reward Connelly’s co-worker, Robert “Rocky” Hoeflich, feels when his job is complete.

I enjoy it because my grandkids come out and see it,” he said, “and Santa Claus, too.”


What Festival of Lights
When 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 30
Where The Plaza, in front of Dover City Hall
Admission All events are free

Featured performers at the Festival of Lights
The Little School at Kids Cottage
The Wesley Pre-School and Kindergarten
Delaware State University’s Laboratory School
The Dover High School Select Ensemble
The Dance Conservatory

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