photo by Seth Kroft

Brightening Billings: The Magic of Christmas Lights

December 2023

by hannah olson | photos by arianna skoog

Mariah Carey may have only wanted one thing for Christmas (it’s you, if you haven’t heard the song), but even for those with a short list for Santa, the holidays wouldn't be complete without the glow of lights shining so brightly everywhere. Whether you find yourself in a snowy landscape, amidst the scorching desert, or on a sun-kissed sandy beach, holiday lights universally symbolize the joy and beauty of the season. 

Gathering to drive around and admire Christmas lights is a cherished and timeless tradition. As the holiday season unfolds, families and friends embark on evening excursions, eagerly wandering through neighborhoods decked with twinkling lights, vibrant displays, and elaborate decorations. Whether it’s a vision of classic simplicity or a Clark Griswold masterpiece with an electric bill even more impressive than the lights themselves, each display offers something for everyone. 

There's an undeniable joy in the air as people of all ages marvel at the creativity and effort poured into these luminous showcases. It's a tradition that transcends generations, fostering a sense of wonder. Through this tradition, the simple act of looking at Christmas lights transforms ordinary nights into extraordinary memories of holiday magic that lingers long after the lights dim. 

You taught me everything I know about exterior illumination.
Clark Griswold

It’s difficult to imagine the holidays before lights were a staple of the season, but have you ever stopped to think about how the tradition began?  

In the early 1880s, Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, showcased the first string of electric lights in a display outside his Laboratory. Although this modest display marked the inception of electric Christmas lights, the innovation took a few more years to fully capture the public's imagination and take it to what it would become. 

Initially, people were hesitant about indoor electric lights due to a distrust of electricity. However, President Grover Cleveland's 1895 White House Christmas tree, illuminated by multi-colored electric bulbs, set a trend. Electric lights remained a luxury until 1903, when General Electric offered affordable pre-assembled kits. In 1917, Albert Sadacca and his brothers founded NOMA Electric Co., mass-producing colorful lights. Following World War II, Bubble Christmas lights emerged, and in the 1950s, multi-colored rotating flood lights complemented aluminum trees, perpetuating the evolution of Christmas lights. 

In recent years, technology has further transformed holiday lights. LED Christmas lights, known for their energy efficiency, have become popular, illuminating homes while conserving electricity. Novelty lights, such as tube and track lighting, have opened new avenues for creative displays, allowing individuals to experiment with diverse colors and patterns.   

The most enduring traditions of the season are best enjoyed in the warm embrace of kith and kin.
Clark Griswold

Many holiday light enthusiasts appreciate the variety of displays, while some prefer one trend or style over another. Fortunately for residents and visitors of Billings, there is something for everyone! Here are a few of our favorite local displays.

Christmas Wreath Lane 

For those who prefer the more traditional homes, Christmas Wreath Lane along 19th Street and Avenue D is a long-time favorite with a sophisticated collection of wreaths that don each home and bring together this classic Billings neighborhood.  


Kids enjoy the character - inspired displays like Whoville at Josephine Crossing or yards filled with inflatable replicas of their favorite cartoon heroes and classic storybook favorites. 

Holiday Nights at ZooMontana 

 photo by Seth Kroft

For those looking to get out of their vehicles and immerse themselves in the displays, there are plenty of great stops throughout the city to stroll through and take in. Holiday Nights at ZooMontana is the most popular site, which debuted last year. The event was a big hit, and this year, we can expect even more interactive holiday fun as the event continues. You can get freshly popped kettle corn, enjoy carols, and even roast s’mores around a campfire while wandering through life-size exhibits.  


Candy Cane Lane 

This neighborhood, starting at the 3000 block of Avenue E, has been “striping” their streets since 1996 and proudly and uniformly displays candy canes with many residents also presenting lighted American flags because why limit the broad red and white stripes to the classic holiday treat when patriotism can play a role as well?  

Angel Ave 

For those who love remembering the reason for the season, Angel Avenue on Banff between 36th and 38th inspires a sense of peace with its abundance of timeless Christmas angels.  

Christmas Tree Trail 

“O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum,” this display along Crater Lake Avenue will have you singing all the classic carols with its wealth of stunning, decorated trees that pay homage to one of the most universal symbols of the season.  

Misfit Lane 

The residents of Glantz Drive bring the 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer film to life to remind holiday light sightseers that there’s a place for everyone, even if you’re a Jack-in-the-box named Charlie or you have a glowing red nose! 

Wondering where to begin or how to map out your holiday sightseeing this season? Billings Christmas Lights hosts a Facebook page and a website where you can view listings by location or theme on a chart or even on a Google map so you can be sure to see them all. With more than can be seen in one evening, plan to dedicate a few nights to take in the show the people of Billings have put together to make the season as wonderful as possible.  

Honey, do you honestly think I would check thousands of tiny little lights if I wasn't sure the extension cord was plugged in?
Clark Griswold

From their humble beginnings as candles on trees to the dazzling array of options available today, holiday lights continue to symbolize the spirit of celebration, illuminating, uplifting, and uniting families and communities around the world. So many families and businesses put forth exceptional effort each year to create something that will bring joy. This season, take advantage of the beautiful displays across Billings and beyond.   

Originally printed in the December 2023 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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