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Each week, KCUR's Adventure! newsletter brings you a new way to explore the Kansas City region.

Brighten your winter with this guide to Kansas City's holiday lights

Powell Gardens Festival of Lights 2020
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Visitors to Powell Gardens' Festival of Lights walk a mile-long path over 25 acres of immersive light displays.

From Bonner Springs to Powell Gardens and everywhere in between, the Kansas City metro is glowing this winter. Get lit with a holiday lights tour of the metro.

This story was first published in KCUR's Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

Fire and light have been part of festive holiday displays for as long as humans have celebrated winter holidays. For thousands of years, people have responded to dark winter nights with brighter and brighter lights, from resplendent candlelight to roaring bonfires.

The advent of electricity was a game-changer for holiday decorations. Perhaps not surprisingly, Thomas Edison is credited with the first strand of electrical lights in 1880, and his partner Edward H. Johnson was the first to add a string of lights to a Christmas tree in 1882.

But as the 20th century progressed, electric lights began their journey into seasonal and streetside ubiquity. Today, the average American household puts up hundreds of lights, with businesses adding thousands more.

So bundle up and grab your hot cocoa — there's plenty to explore on this year's holiday lights adventure.

Bright traditions

Plaza Lights, looking west along Nichols Road, 1950s
Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri
Legend has it that the annual tradition of holiday lights at the Country Club Plaza began when maintenance supervisor Charles "Pete" Pitrat hung a few strands of lights on the Mill Creek Building in 1925.

Kansas City has many iconic locations, transformed during the winter into megawatt wonderlands.

The Mayor’s Christmas Tree, one of the largest in the country at 100 feet tall, sits in the courtyard of Crown Center, scrumptiously decorated and just yards away from ice skating. The Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund started in 1908, a charitable tradition that provides support for Kansas Citians in need. The fund is supported by donations and the sale of limited edition ornaments, designed by Hallmark artists and made using the tree from the previous year. This year, Kevin Strickland helped light the Mayor's Christmas Tree.

Legend has it that the impressive display of lights on the Country Club Plaza started when maintenance supervisor Charles “Pete” Pitrat hung a few simple strands of lights on the Mill Creek Building in 1925. Now, thousands of people show up for the lighting ceremony on the evening of Thanksgiving Day, which typically includes performances, speeches and local celebrities to throw the switch, while even more watch the live broadcast from home. This year, those official illuminators were members of the Kansas City Current soccer team.

Union Station, built in 1914 and reopened in 1999, has provided holiday entertainment of all sorts for decades. Currently, the outside is lit up blue and white in honor of Hanukkah, the eight-night Festival of Lights.

Last year, Union Station opened its first walk-through village experience in the Grand Plaza. Holiday Reflections returns again, with the Mini Holiday Express Ride-On Train (for children under 4 feet tall) and the newly remodeled and expanded model train gallery. In the Gottlieb Planetarium, you can learn about the natural lights of the season with showings of Sky Station Live Stars of Faith and, with a modern twist, a Holiday Magic Laser Show.

You can also learn about local holiday traditions of the 19th century with A Christmas Celebration at Missouri Town 1855 on Dec. 4 in Lee's Summit, and a Candlelight Tour of Fort Osage on Dec. 11 in Sibley, Missouri.

Winterland walks

Powell Gardens Festival of Lights
Carlos Moreno
Wander the expansive grounds of Powell Gardens during its fifth annual Festival of Lights.

Nothing makes hot cocoa taste better than taking a frosty stroll on a winter’s night. Wander the grounds of Powell Gardens during its fifth annual Festival of Lights, which runs Wednesdays-Sundays through Dec. 30 (with additional dates Dec. 20-21 and 27-28).

The Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens hosts its Luminary Walk for select nights in the first few weeks of December. With decorations along the paths and into the woods, this family-friendly event also includes musical performances and the intricately decorated Gnome and Fairy Village, created by Arboretum volunteers. The Arboretum also hosts an adults-only Candlelight Stroll on Dec. 2.

For the second year, the Kansas City Renaissance Festival transforms its Wyandotte County village into Knights of Lights, a walk-through experience with food, entertainment and activities. The festival is open Thursdays-Sundays, as well as Dec. 21-22. It's closed on Christmas but will have an extended show on Dec. 31.

Sar-Ko Aglow has its official lighting ceremony on Dec. 3, in Lenexa’s Sar-Ko-Par Trails Park. This free event includes cocoa and a visit from Santa. The park is lit nightly through Jan. 17, with free parking and no tickets required.

The Rozarks Luminary Hike, in its second year, illuminates a portion of the trails in Fisher Park on Dec. 13-18, for a free community event sponsored by the Rosedale Development Association. Flashlights are encouraged while hiking the non-paved, wooded trails, starting at dusk.

Neighborhoods and communities

Candy Cane Lane, Prairie Village
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
The 7900 block of Outlook Street in Prairie Village, otherwise known as Candy Cane Lane, features a large tree in the middle of the turnaround at the end of the light-filled street.

Light displays can be a way for communities to share in the holiday joy, by actively creating spectacles or passively appreciating them. Both town squares and unassuming homes are transformed for the holiday season.

In Independence, Missouri, the homeowner of the Crysler Light Show added over 10,000 pixels to an already impressive display, now in its seventh year. When passing, turn the car radio to 100.3 FM for synchronized music.

Drive over to Johnson County, Kansas, to see a plethora of individual homes and neighborhood cul de sacs all decked out, including Prairie Village’s Candy Cane Lane, now in its 63rd year. Kansas Traveler includes many local sites and suggested routes.

Liberty, Missouri, hosts a Hometown Holidays celebration on Dec. 5 with a ceremonial tree lighting. While you're there, you can grab a Holiday Homes self-tour map. There’s also the drive-through Liberty Light Show at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church with live shows Dec. 3-5 and Dec. 10-12, and automated shows Dec. 13-23.

Historic Downtown Parkville hosts Christmas on the River with music, carolers, kiddie train rides, photos with Santa and more — including holiday fireworks — on Dec. 3rd.

Caring for others (and the planet)

Holiday lights Winter Magic
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
KC Parks hosts Winter Magic, a drive-through light experience in Swope Park, which also serves as an official fundraiser for Children's Mercy Hospital.

These aren’t just impressive displays of organized combustion and randomized joy. Many of our local holiday light displays are a way to attract attention and raise funds for those in need during the holiday season.

Former Kansas City Mayor George Shelley started mayoral acts of Christmas charity in 1878, with firewood and baskets of food for those in need. It was a precursor to the current Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund. Shelley funded and decorated his own tree (lit with candles, in the tradition of the day). Read more about that history from the Martin City Telegraph.

Last year, KC Parks hosted Winter Magic, a drive-through light experience in Swope Park. It’s back this year with an additional show, Holiday Light and Magic, located in Bonner Springs, Kansas. Both holiday light shows serve as official fundraisers for Children's Mercy Hospital.

All told, though, people in the U.S. use more energy during the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day than some countries use during an entire year. But there are easy ways to save energy while celebrating the holidays. Using LED lights, timers or solar-powered holiday lights can help to ensure our festivities are energy efficient, too.

You can also combat increased light pollution during the holidays by turning off lights around 10 p.m., setting a timer, or choosing to light up only a few nights a week to allow the natural world its reset as well.

Want more adventures like this? Sign up for KCUR's Creative Adventure Email.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She's written for KCUR, KC Studio, The Kansas City Star, The Pitch, and KCMetropolis. Libby maintains the culture blog Proust Eats A Sandwich and writes poetry and children's books. Along with degrees in trombone performance, she was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University.
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