COLUMN: Light unto the holiday night

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Light unto the holiday night
By Aaron J. Brown

The other night we did something many northern Minnesota families do this time of year. Despite the availability of electricity and light bulbs in our own home we trekked the 110 miles to downtown Duluth to see Bentleyville, the holiday light display that you’ve seen on the local news or on the Facebook profiles of your tangential friends.

These pictures fail to articulate one important observation: BENTLEYVILLE CAN BE SEEN FROM SPACE. It utterly changes the landscape of the Duluth harbor as you crack the rampart of Miller Hill’s retail district. Want directions? Drive toward the light. You will see it.

Residents of larger cities probably find such an attraction quant, another example of small market Midwestern yokelism. There are bigger displays in this country, and the Twin Cities papers feature a whole listing of large displays. But this display is pretty big, “the largest in the Upper Midwest,” and notable because of the way it has captured the imagination of people in our region. What started in 2001 as a private residential display outside Esko, Bentleyville has grown.  In 2008 the attraction moved into downtown Duluth’s Bayfront Park. Its huge team of volunteers continue to support original proprietor Nathan Bentley’s not-for-profit mission of giving food, toys and spreading holiday cheer to those in need.

It must also be mentioned that Bentleyville is indeed located in Duluth and takes place during December, two of the coldest cities and months, respectively, known to the Lower 48. We tried to prepare the boys for the cold blast they would experience, but trying to affix snow pants to the 3-year-olds in the van we realized we were up against a monumental wall of cold.

It’s always the wind that gets you, the kind that freezes your eyeballs. We made it around the tour of lights with Henry hugging all the large cartoon animals he could, some twice. I almost made a joke about killing one and hunkering down inside like Luke did in Star Wars, but I refrained. Until now!

It’s been interesting to watch Christmas light displays change so much in the last 20 years. When I was a kid I recall touring around with my aunts to see houses with what were then considered to be elaborate light schemes. In recent years it seems like somehow there are both more and less Christmas light displays. You see more giant inflatable decorations on every other street, the poofy Santas from big box stores that blow over in the wind. But, if memory serves, there are fewer large displays, the kind you’d pile the kids in to go see. It could be that the displays cost more now, or that people are deferring to a few of the largest displays. It could also be that residents are just trending older, the kids are gone, and fewer people have the ability, energy or desire to troll around the roof with a staple gun.

I used to decorate our house with Christmas lights. It was a tradition I started when I surprised my wife by lighting up the outside tree when she was at work one night, the first year we lived at our house in town. But we’ve since moved out to the country and had three kids. The fixture on my little light-up penguin barely works now, too jostled with time and cold, and I have no idea how many replacement bulbs I’d need to buy.

Too many. While it might not be practical to turn our rural home into a beacon in the December night, we did learn something from the lights we saw at Bentleyville. As we drove home in the dark van up the long highway back home, Doug literally cursed the darkness.

“Go away, dark,” he repeated for more miles than we would have liked.

The one thing you can say about the blinking, multi-colored, over-the-top spectacle of Bentleyville is that it sure lights up the night. Humans live for light. More light is better than less.

Aaron J. Brown is a writer and community college instructor from the Iron Range. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”


  1. I’m glad you talked a bit about this Bentleyville. I’ve been curious about it since I’ve seen so many folks talking about it on . . . facebook. You hit that one on the head.

    It’s interesting you mentioned the “lower 48”. Not a whole lot of people from the lower 48 refer to themselves as being in the lower 48.

    I don’t think more light is better than less. Light makes me crazy, kind of manic in fact. Dark keeps me mellow.

    I had a lot to say about this post.

  2. Thanks for this post. I was planning to drive up and visit on Dec. 26, so I’ll definitely stop by Bentleyville. I’d ask if you’ll be around for a beer, or some mashed potato balls at the Hammond Spur, but since it’s so close to Christmas I assume you’ll be busy at home with the fam. Let me know if not, though.

  3. @AnnMarie – You guys living in Alaska has changed my thinking. I said “Lower 48” specifically because I didn’t want you guys to respond telling me that Fairbanks is colder than Duluth, which it is. Duluth is the coldest TV market in the Lower 48. I suppose your comment on light also makes sense. I have to admit that, even though I purport not to like the dark, I do much of my work at night. Does that mean that perpetual darkness would help my productivity? Maybe.
    @Paul – Dagnabbit. With divorced parents the holiday block is immovable. Still around Dec. 27 or 28? I might be down, but there are complicating factors. DM me! 🙂

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