In the wintertime, downtown Grand Junction by day can seem stark and a bit drab without snow.
Bare tree branches stick up abruptly into the blue or overcast skies, cold and unforgiving.
Then night falls and — blink! — the lights come on. It’s Christmas time!
It’s still cold, but those lights twinkling from the trees make all the difference.
“I know for sure that people really dig the Christmas light displays,” said David Goe, community engagement manager for Downtown Grand Junction. “I posted a video (on social media), oh, a week and half ago when they first got turned on and the engagement was through the roof.”
Every year, people ask when the Christmas lights will get turned on, he said, and this year wasn’t an exception, even though the annual lighting ceremony wasn’t able to happen before Thanksgiving.
“People just really appreciated that we were doing anything to keep that holiday spirit downtown,” he said.
“Parks and Recreation does so much good work to get (the lights) up and make them look good. We appreciate that,” said Goe, alluding to the partnerships that allow those Christmas lights to fill downtown each year.
Downtown Grand Junction foots the bill for the purchase of the strings of lights that can be seen wound and looped around trees on Main Street and Colorado Avenue. About $5,000 this year went toward replacing lights that had gone bad and the junctions that were needed to connect the show.
Wells Fargo Bank arranges for the purchase and delivery of the Christmas tree that stands tall in the plaza just outside its doors at Third and Main.
And then the Grand Junction Parks and Recreation Department, with its Forestry Division in the lead, works its magic with strand after strand of lights.
Wrapping a single honey locust trees can take days. “It’s very tedious,” said Rob Davis, the city forester and open space supervisor.
However, making the downtown area look beautiful for the holidays is a point of pride for the crews that work on the project.
“It’s not half-done work,” Davis said.
This year there are approximately 150,000 low-energy LED lights decorating 88 trees along Main Street and Colorado Avenue, he said. Crews started putting up lights in the middle of October and will begin to take them down the second week of February.
Davis has found old photos that look like they’re from the 1940s that show Grand Junction employees decorating downtown with lights for Christmas, so this is a process that has been going on for at least 80 years or longer, he said.
But, 2020 had its own idea of “decorating” that threw a wrench in things. The Oct. 25 snowstorm that covered the valley in heavy white flakes also damaged thousands of trees, he said.
“That created a lot of unexpected work for us,” Davis said. Broken branches were everywhere across the city and forestry staff had to respond.
Fortunately, the process of putting up the lights downtown had just started so there wasn’t too much to recover there, but additional help was needed because forestry staff was elsewhere, dealing with downed trees and branches, Davis said.
James Boda, a forestry plant health care specialist, took the lead in coordinating the work groups that came from other areas of Parks and Recreation to help, Davis said.
The arborist bucket trucks they usually use when putting up the lights were out dealing with storm damage, so they had to rent some specialized lifts, he said.
Those also were used to decorate the Christmas tree in front of Wells Fargo, which took two full days to put up.
The tree comes from a former orchard owned by Ed Hice in the community of Cory in Delta County, said Tom Benton, who retired from Wells Fargo about five years ago. He continues to coordinate with the bank as it sponsors the Christmas tree, something it has done for more than a decade.
Hice has some beautiful large pines that weren’t harvested in the last housing bubble and each year Benton visits Hice to see the trees that might work, Benton said.
The tree must be a minimum of 20 feet tall and finding it “is actually kind of fun,” Benton said. “It’s kind of like going hunting.”
This year’s tree is about 23 feet tall with near perfect dimensions. Benton cut it down and then Hice used a skidsteer to load it on a trailer that Benton drove back to Grand Junction.
“You kind of take up both lanes on Highway 50,” Benton said. “I work hard to keep the pine cones on the top of it. Some years, they make the trip and others they get blown off depending on the cross winds.”
Phil Wagner, the custodian at Wells Fargo, helps get the tree situated in its base and this year the parks crew used a rope swing to position the tree properly, Benton said.
Once it was stable, the decorating began.
“It definitely is a process to go through every year,” Davis said.
But the Christmas tree and the Christmas lights create such a sense of place, Davis said.
During the summer, the downtown trees are noted for the shade they provide. In the winter, the Christmas lights highlight the trees.
“It touches on their value … and the uniqueness of them,” Davis said. “It’s a way to bring people out and into the downtown area.”
The Christmas lights are festive every year, and they make people happy, Goe said.
But with all that has happened in 2020, and even with all that has been canceled or lost, at least the lights remain.
“And we really just want to make people feel happy this year,” Goe said.