Featured image: A festive wintry scene in Leavenworth, Washington (photo by Cheryl Landes)
December is a magical time in Leavenworth, Washington. When snow clouds drop fresh powder on the roofs of the Bavarian-style buildings, with the rugged Cascade Mountains as a backdrop, the small town resembles an Alpine village.
Add to this one of the most elaborate Christmas lighting ceremonies in the Pacific Northwest, and the town transforms into a wonderland out of a childhood fairytale.
The lighted trees surrounding the gazebo in downtown Leavenworth (photo by Cheryl Landes)
Despite the snow, Leavenworth buzzes with activity the first three weekends in December, at the annual Christmas Lighting Festival. This year, the town celebrates 50 years of this tradition. Residents and visitors search for the perfect gift, combing through shops filled with handmade Old World crafts. While shoppers look at clocks, miniatures, dolls, music boxes, ceramics, and oil paintings, the excitement builds outside.
In the park across the street, kids on sleds, live music, and appearances by Santa enhance the Christmas spirit. The smells of roasted chestnuts and other holiday treats fill the air. At dusk, a countdown begins to the grand finale, when thousands of brightly colored lights come on simultaneously.
Night sledding in downtown Leavenworth (photo by Cheryl Landes)
The Christmas Lighting Festival idea originated in the 1960s, when Ted Price and Bob Rodgers, owners of the Squirrel Tree Inn, hung hundreds of brightly colored bulbs around the site of the restaurant. At that time, the restaurant wasn’t yet open, but that didn’t prevent passersby from admiring the lights.
The overwhelming interest encouraged Price and Rodgers to propose an annual lighting festival to the city council. When they presented the idea, the town was attempting to boost its economy.
Leavenworth thrived throughout the 1920s, when it was the hub for the Great Northern Railway and home of a large lumber mill. The boom ended when the railroad closed its switching yard and the lumber mill went out of business.
After World War II, Leavenworth seemed to be dying. The US Forest Service Hatchery and National Fish Hatchery, a few orchards, and some small logging companies generated most of the town’s revenue. By the late 1950s, 24 empty stores lined the two-block stretch of the main street. Many residents began shopping in Wenatchee when improvements on US 2 reduced driving time to 30 minutes.
In late 1962 at the request of local volunteers, staff from the University of Washington Bureau of Community Development visited Leavenworth and held a preliminary meeting to discuss community needs and interests and organize a study to find solutions to the town’s problems.
More than 200 citizens participated in the study that eventually resulted in Leavenworth remodeling its downtown core beginning in 1965. A Bavarian style was adopted to attract local people who were then doing their Christmas shopping out of town.
Horse-drawn wagons are a common sight in Leavenworth. (photo by Cheryl Landes)
The Christmas Lighting Festival began in December 1966. About 200 people attended, of which very few were locals. Most traveled from the Seattle area. Now, crowds of 25,000 are not uncommon.
The 2016 festival is Friday-Sunday, December 2-4, 9-11, and 16-18. The lighting ceremony begins at 4:30 p.m. each day of the festival. After that, the lights will stay on through January.
Other winter activities in Leavenworth include sleigh rides, Nordic and alpine skiing, tubing, snowshoeing, shopping, dining, and wine tasting. For more information, visit the City of Leavenworth’s website, email info@LeavenworthChristmasLighting.com, or call (866) 579-1355.
Colorful lights at the Bavarian Lodge in downtown Leavenworth (photo by Cheryl Landes)