Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Night of Lights is tradition for area of families

What started as store decorations now much more

The Merry Christmas wreath at the I&M Building is among the many that will be lit during Night of Lights.

Published November 16, 2022

There might be some holiday events that kick off sooner, but for many locals, things get into full swing with Downtown Fort Wayne’s Night of Lights.

The annual tradition is once again slated for the night before Thanksgiving, Nov. 23, with thousands gathering downtown to see the lighting of Santa and his reindeer, the Merry Christmas wreath, and so much more.

“It really is all about family, tradition, gathering, not only as a family, but as a community, to see these iconic displays,” said Rick Zolman, events and programming manager for Downtown Fort Wayne. “From my standpoint, it’s kind of an honor and very cool to be a part of.”

Repairman restores tradition

Before Santa and his reindeer led to road closures and thousands crowded around to count down his lighting, he was a decoration for the Wolf and Dessauer department store at Washington Boulevard and Calhoun Street, where the I&M Building currently resides. 

The Merry Christmas wreath made its initial appearance in 1937 on the side of the building facing Calhoun, with Santa and his reindeer adorning the Washington side of the building in 1940.

The decorations took some time off during World War II, but returned before going into storage in 1958. If it weren’t for an ambitious GTE repairman, that’s where the story might have ended.

In 1979, James Green stumbled upon Santa and had the idea to bring it back to life, but that would require permission.

“He went to his boss and said, ‘Hey, I would love to have a part in getting this back involved,’ ” Zolman said. “They made a deal that basically said, if he got one light bulb to work, then they would move forward and recondition it.”

He did get a bulb to work, and after a portion was erected in 1979, the entire display made its return in 1980.

Green, a Snider graduate, died at 71 in July, but his obituary made it clear that he was proud of the contribution he made to the downtown tradition.

“Many volunteers, trade unions, and companies eventually got involved and helped to restore the display and bring a new tradition to life,” the obituary reads.

“Jim was absolutely thrilled to be honored on stage and presented a plaque for his involvement in igniting this tradition at the 30th anniversary lighting in 2009. Jim loved telling this story and loved how much joy this continues to bring so many people.”

And organizers are grateful for his effort.

“We kind of lost that connection to history, but so thankful to him and his family and his supervisor, from the standpoint of doing that,” Zolman said.

Much more than lightings

With Santa up and running, Zolman estimates the wreath made its return in the mid- to late ’80s. After years of individual organizations handling the lightings, Downtown Fort Wayne got involved at the turn of the century, and it’s only grown since.

Working with the city to close streets, the event has led to more displays and activities, with many businesses offering free hot chocolate, activities, and other merriment.

Before the lightings begin at 5:45 p.m., you’ll be able to check out decorated windows at Embassy Theatre and visit the Allen County Public Library at 3 p.m. for their Christmas at the Library, featuring displays, Christmas-related crafts, games, and free books. The library will also have its “A Lincoln Collection Christmas” exhibit in The Rolland Center, so you can see historic Christmas items from the 16th president’s time.

“When you bring that kind of history in, it connects more individuals to the event,” Zolman said.

Ice cream connects everyone, and Kilwins will be offering free scoops of peppermint fudge and a chocolate bar, while Sweets on Main will be handing out free scoops of their Holiday Spritz with purchase of another flavor as you enjoy holiday music. Right next door, a tradition that runs alongside the lightings is grabbing a Coney dog, but if you don’t want to be there all night, Zolman suggests arriving at Fort Wayne’s Famous Coney Island early.

“Traffic downtown that evening becomes a bit of a challenge, so if I had one suggestion for everyone, it would be to arrive early,” he said. “I know with Coney Island, if you’re not there in line by 2:30-3ish, you’re gonna wait a little bit.”

Baker Street Station will have Santa on hand with one of his reindeer from 4-8 p.m. and Community Center will host Santa’s Workshop at 4:30 p.m.

Some other activities you might want to check out are the Not By Bread Alone Food Drive at the former Aunt Millie’s Bakeries and SCAN clothing drive at the I&M Plaza with music from Alicia Pyle and the Locals. There will also be the Kris Kringle Village by Fort Wayne Ballet in the plaza at Arts United Center and caroling at the Home Builders Association and the courthouse, where you can also grab some free hot chocolate.

“It is a community event, and the retail establishments that are open love to be able to participate,” Zolman said.

The Grand Wayne Center will also be a popular spot, and not just to take a break from late November weather. One Elftastic Evening begins at 5 p.m. and includes performances by Faith in Motion Dancers and Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s Junior Strings Ensemble and Youth Symphony Orchestra. Outside of the performance hall, there will be photo opportunities, crafts, and a visit from the Big Guy himself.

“It’s amazing how far it’s come, but it all ties back to family and tradition,” Zolman said of Night of Lights.

And for those of you that want to avoid all the hustle and bustle, there will be a sensory friendly Night of Lights in the Park Foundation Pavilion at Promenade Park.

“It’s more laid back,” Zolman said. “It’s a light show, using low lighting. There’s aromatherapy, music, and guided relaxation. It’s about eight minutes. It provides an opportunity for those that don’t want to be a part of the big crowd or the noise or the lights.”

Light up the night

When it comes to the lightings, those begins at 5:45 p.m. at History Center with the Turret Lighting, followed by Kris Kringle Village at Arts United at 5:50 p.m., Christ Child Festival Nativity Lighting at 5:55 p.m., Aunt Millie’s Northern Lights at 6 p.m., and Santa’s Workshop at Community Center at 6:05 p.m.

Then comes the big show as Santa and his reindeer become illuminated at 6:20 p.m. at the PNC Building. Then weave your way through downtown to watch the Ash Brokerage display at 6:40 p.m., the Flagstar Bank Christmas Tree and I&M Merry Christmas wreath at 7 p.m., and finally the Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory displays at 7:15 p.m.

Although the lightings might be finished, the night isn’t over as the Ringing of the Bells will be at 7:30 p.m., followed by the big finale: 8 p.m. fireworks at Parkview Field. If you arrive before 7:45 p.m., you can sit in the lower level at the field, but after that, you can still get a pretty good view from the street.

“The payoff is when we do these lightings and you see all the smiles on the kids’ faces and how big their eyes get,” Zolman said.

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