Lebanon’s volunteers brighten holidays

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

The 21st annual Holidays in the Park “A Candyland Christmas” on Dec. 4 began like it does each year: dark.
In the daytime, decorations and light fixtures could be seen strewn on every tree and plant at Ralston Park, but until the formal tree-lighting during the first weekend in December takes place, anticipation is the only thing lighting up imaginations.
Vendors set up booths along the park’s north side, and various groups and organizations provided entertainment at the gazebo in the afternoon. As darkness fell over the city, crowds of people began to thicken downtown.
Some families set up chairs along Main Street to watch the start of the Twilight Parade, but the sidewalks grew thicker with bodies the closer one got to Ralston Park. There were also people lined up in the park for hot chocolate, horse-drawn carriage rides and photos with Santa Claus.
Mayor Paul Aziz noted it was the largest number of people he’s ever seen at the event.
At 6 p.m., Aziz and Santa Claus gathered at the large red-and-white striped light switch and began the countdown. When the lights came on, all the park’s trees blinked with their brilliant colors, and the crowd cheered.
For decades, Lebanon families have been given the gift of this holiday delight, but Holidays in the Park wouldn’t be a part of Lebanon tradition were it not for Ginger Allen and the handful of people who put it together every year.
Before the 21st century, the park’s only December light was the large tree, lit by the Lebanon Fire District, and the gazebo, lit by Altrusa, Allen said. But in 2000, Altrusa stepped away from that responsibility, and Allen, who then worked for the City of Lebanon, was asked to take over.
With eight others helping her, Allen got that gazebo lit.
“The fog was so dense we could barely see each other,” she recalled. “When we were all through, we had three strands of lighst leftover, so I said, ‘Let’s wrap a tree.’”
Allen and her family liked to visit Holiday Lights at Shore Acres along the coast, a display with more than 325,000 lights covering Shore Acres State Park in Coos Bay. So later that year, her visit sparked an idea.
“We would look at all of the beautiful Christmas lights,” she said. “I said, ‘We need to light up Ralston Park. We need to start wrapping trees.’”
In 2001, she formed a committee and started the official Holidays in the Park, which grew to as many as 20 volunteers by 2005. The committee began by dividing the park – then in poor shape, she said – into three sections, which would be phased-in over time.
They asked for businesses to sponsor a tree for $50 and help decorate it. In that first year, almost 15,000 lights were added to the park. There were nearly 44,000 in 2002. Eight years later, more than 144,000 lights were featured.

DALA JOHNSON hangs garland along the gazebo rail.

Today, Dala and Stuart Johnson head Holidays in the Park, rounding up about eight volunteers every year to hang lights and decorations. They continue to ask businesses to sponsor a tree for $10, but her team has to decorate the sponsored tree if the business doesn’t show up to do the work. It takes every weekend for almost two months to organize and set up the decorations, adding up to about 1,000 hours of work a year, according to Dala Johnson.
“This is a community park and it needs to be community driven,” she said. “If the community came in and did some trees, then it becomes ours. It’s not just Holidays in the Park; it’s everybody’s, and they take pride in it.”
Volunteer Eva Mosley remembered working in 33-degree weather with sideways rain a few years ago.
“It was horrible,” she said. “It was like this gigantic storm and we were trying to get all this set up. We’re all cold. We’re all tired. But we knew the end result was going to be beautiful, as it always is, and that’s the thing.”
Volunteer Cindy Kerby also said the hard work is worth it.

Cindy Kerby snaps a photo for some children who wanted a picture with Santa Claus.

“We do it for the families and the people in Lebanon that come out here and enjoy them,” she said. “But I think I get more joy out of watching the families walk through during the month of December than I do the day of (the event).”
Yet, each year the volunteers find themselves asking if they’re up for doing it again, Johnson said.
“Yeah, every year we say that,” volunteer Ronda Vinson agreed.
Johnson wants the community to know that more donations, manpower and new ideas would help guarantee that Holidays in the Park would continue.
Allen understands that feeling. In her decade of pioneering and building up Holidays in the Park, she’s had to encourage volunteers to keep going.
“People are excited until it comes time to do it; then people fall to the wayside,” she said. “But that didn’t discourage us because we knew that it wasn’t going to happen overnight.”
Still, Allen gets teary-eyed when she thinks about what she started.
“We love the Christmas season and the meaning behind it,” she said. “It really blesses my heart to see that the community values it.”

Volunteers Alyssa Poplin, left, and Eva Mosley hang lights on a bush in Ralston Park.

Often, the volunteers don’t get to absorb much of what’s happening around them because they’re still working. Kerby invited kids to talk to Santa Claus, Mosley managed carriage rides and crowds around the parade, and other volunteers kept a watchful eye for safety.
Near the end of the evening, after the park was lit up and families wandered around taking it all in, Johnson and Vinson could be seen picking up trash overflowing from the garbage cans.
“When we get this all done, all the time we put in here, and then all the people that show up and the smiles and the kids are just having a wonderful time and enjoying the lights and the parade, it’s fabulous,” Mosley said. “It just brings everything all together for us, all the hard work. So it’s the faces. It’s the smiles. It’s the happiness. We need more happiness in the world.”

WINNERS of the Twilight Parade are: Scalawags (most creative), Enchanted Willow Dancers (Santa’s choice), Top Tier Tree Care (best use of theme), and Krake Home Sales (best use of lights).

WINNERS of the sponsored trees in Ralston Park are: Hangry Solution (best use of theme), Lebanon Strawberrians (best use of lights), and Real Bowls Real People (most creative)