By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
When winter comes to Milwaukee it doesn’t just bring snow and sharp winds. In fact, as winter settles across the bustling city with it comes a plethora of decorations from the holiday lights to street banners—Milwaukee turns into a twinkling winter wonderland.
This year marks the 19th year of the holiday lights according to Milwaukee Downton CEO, Beth Weirick.
Back in the day, Milwaukee used to decorate every year when the cold winds blew, but when the energy crisis hit the city in the sixties, the lights were tucked away. According to Weirick, civic leaders decided to bring the decorations back. Over the years, the decorations have changed, but the spirit is as alive as ever.
The first year, workers adorned the city in street décor with traditional banners, but the following year they brought back the lights and began decorating the parks. This year’s parks include Cathedral Square, Pere Marquette Park and Zeidler Union Square.
Although those areas have some of the largest displays, the entire downtown has been decorated from City Hall to Candy Cane Lane to Wisconsin Avenue to Fourth Street, even the Riverwalk has been decked out in festive décor.
Set up for the lights begins the second week of October, with teams setting up baseline preparations.
Not all the work is done by the city, Weirick said. Certain places like between Fourth Street and Michigan Avenue are done by contractors like KEI who use a four to six-person team.
“It’s a good solid four to five weeks of work,” Weirick said.
Everything must be in position before kick-off which occurs the Thursday before Thanksgiving—this year’s kick-off happened Nov. 16th.
While the lights are a main feature of the decorations, they’re not the only part. For instance, Cathedral Square sports a hundred evergreen trees each decorated with a particular theme.
The themes and ornaments are supplied by schools around Milwaukee and began when the city looked for a way to bring the youth together.
The solution was to email schools be they public, private, charter or choice, in the Milwaukee area. Then, the first hundred to respond with their theme were chosen to decorate a tree.
Once the schools are selected anew each year, students are invited downtown to decorate their school’s tree.
Decorating the tree is only half of it. The theme is incorporated into lessons and research projects, so the students can invest and fully understand the importance of their theme.
According to Weirick, for many, it’s their first trip downtown and this year’s decorating happened over the course of ten days with four thousand students being bussed in.
In addition to the evergreens, Santa’s Mailbox sits in Cathedral Square and his Ice Castle stands tall in Pere Marquette’s park. In order to hit all the spots, visitors can board the Jingle Bus for $2 a person.
Among the decorations, Milwaukee is also doing a Wishlist Milwaukee which features local online retailers in vacant store windows. The goal is to get the word out about local retailers while showcasing the city’s many possibilities.
“The stronger downtown is the stronger our city is the stronger our community is,” Weirick said.
The lights, in addition to bringing the city and community together, makes it a place that Milwaukeeans can be proud of to call home and one tourist wish to visit.
Aside from the Jingle Bus, residents can also write a letter to Santa, join the Clauses for some hot cocoa and tour the Pabst Mansion to name a few activities. To learn about more events surrounding the holiday lights visit milwaukeeholidaylights.com. Those who wish to share their experience can use the hashtag #MKEholidaylights.