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Half a million lights to illuminate Bemidji for First City of Lights' 25th anniversary

This year marks the silver anniversary of the community’s beloved First City of Lights celebration, and work is already underway to make it the grandest send-off to the Christmas season yet.

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Paul Bunyan’s Christmas Tree went up this week in Paul Bunyan Park as the First City of Lights Foundation continues to decorate for the upcoming holiday season. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
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BEMIDJI -- Bemidji is about to get a whole lot brighter.

This year marks the silver anniversary of the community’s beloved First City of Lights celebration, and work is already underway to make it the grandest send-off to the Christmas season yet.

According to Josh Peterson, executive director of the First City of Lights Foundation, the downtown will soon be blanketed in half a million sparkling lights -- a step up from the more than 300,000 lights that illuminated Bemidji in 2019 .

“I've literally been counting light bulbs to make sure we get to that half-million mark,” Peterson said with a laugh. “You really have to be a passionate person who loves Christmas to do this project.”

Since its conception in 1996, the holiday celebration has seen many changes and grown immensely, especially within the last six years, Peterson said. Formerly run by the Bemidji Jaycees, it is now newly organized by the nonprofit First City of Lights Foundation.

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“The celebration really outgrew the community organization and had to become its own entity,” Peterson said. “With it being the 25th anniversary and it now being its own entity, we wanted to make this like starting a new chapter in the event itself. We wanted to make sure that we do this right and we do it big, so this year's display will be Bemidji's largest ever in history.”

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A twinkling Fountain of Hope was added to Bemidji’s Library Park this year for the First City of Lights celebration. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

As in past years, lights will span along Library Park, Paul Bunyan Park, Lake Bemidji’s south shore and downtown Bemidji. But Peterson said spectators can expect to see added brilliance, such as new lights on the downtown Bemidji archway, lights on rooftops along Third Street, as well as four trees wrapped in LED lights strategically placed along the street as a “gateway to downtown.”

An illuminated display called the Nature Trail, sponsored by Enbridge, will also debut and will feature various woodland creatures placed along the path leading to Chief Bemidji’s statue. The display will pay homage to the area’s Ojibwe culture by presenting each animal with accompanying signage of its name in the Ojibwe language.

“The First City of Lights Foundation really wanted to connect with our history here in Bemidji, but also our culture,” Peterson said. “The signage makes it a little bit interactive and educational at the same time.”

Other illuminated displays to be showcased include an animated Ferris wheel, sponsored by the Grant Valley 4-H Program, in Paul Bunyan Park; the returning Fountain of Hope, sponsored by Sanford Health, in Library Park; and the American flag, sponsored by Hill’s Plumbing and Heating, at the south end of Paul Bunyan Park.

On Tuesday, Nov. 2, Paul Bunyan’s Christmas Tree, sponsored by Paul Bunyan Communications, was set up in Paul Bunyan Park, and additional lights were added to its panels to make it extra bright, Peterson said. Again, its lights will sync to Christmas music on the radio station 97.1 FM.

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Additionally, Peterson said there are tentative plans for a fireworks display during the Night We Light celebration , which is contingent on the ice conditions of Lake Bemidji.

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Nick Andreas, from Otter Tail Power, puts the star on top of Paul Bunyan’s Christmas Tree on Tuesday, Nov. 2, in Paul Bunyan Park. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

“It’s exciting to be back in full force,” Peterson said. “We have a vision to really make Bemidji the true Christmas city of the north by continuing to add new displays every year.”

Peterson said the First City of Lights celebration couldn't be done without its sponsors, the Bemidji Parks and Recreation Department, community organizations and countless volunteers. It is solely put on by community donations, and he said fundraising for the holiday spectacular is ongoing and much appreciated.

“It's a true community event. It takes an entire community to put this on, and it shows because everyone takes a little personal pride and ownership in this particular event,” Peterson said. “There are lots of new additions this year and it comes at a great expense, but we've always had faith in the community because they've always stepped up to the plate when we needed to make sure we have the funding to cover everything we do.”

To donate to the First City of Lights Foundation or register for activities, visit firstcityoflights.org .

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A snowman highlights this brightly decorated yard 3328 Birchmont Dr. NE on the First City of Lights Tour of Homes in 2020. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

First City of Lights activities and events

First City of Lights Parade

The Night We Light Parade will be back to normal again after transforming into an “un-parade” because of the pandemic last year . The parade will travel east on Eighth Street, turning south on Beltrami Avenue to Third Street, where it will travel west and end at Irvine Avenue.

Following the parade, spectators should make their way down to Paul Bunyan Park for the Night We Light Ceremony. This is when the official countdown is held and the giant light switch is flipped to illuminate the city. Special guests, musical performances, and awards for the best parade entries are also presented at this time.

Santa’s Workshop

The Bemidji Tourist Information Center transforms into Santa’s workshop for the holiday season, Peterson said. Guests can get a photo with Santa, enjoy holiday treats, write a letter to Santa and place it in his giant mailbox and take home some Christmas crafts.

It will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Nov. 26 and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Nov. 27.

Carts of Care Food and Toy Drive

Prior to the start of the Night We Light Parade, Carts of Care will lead on the parade route where a team will collect food donations for the Bemidji Community Food Shelf and toys for the United Way of the Bemidji Area’s annual Holiday Gifts for Kids program.

Those who wish to make their donation prior to the parade can do so at the Tourist Information Center where free LED Christmas Lights will be handed out courtesy of Ottertail Power Company with each donation made while supplies last.

Christmas Window Display Contest

During the holiday season, businesses throughout the downtown will have their window displays illuminated for all to see. After taking in all the displays, individuals should cast their ballot for best display at the Tourist Information Center.

First City of Lights Tour of Homes

Beginning Nov. 26, a map of homes with the most illuminated Christmas displays will be made available at the Tourist Information Center.

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Nick Andreas, from Otter Tail Power, puts the star on top of Paul Bunyan’s Christmas Tree on Tuesday, Nov. 2, in Paul Bunyan Park. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Related Topics: CHRISTMASTHINGS TO DO
Bria Barton covers travel and tourism for Forum News Service and is based at the Bemidji Pioneer. A South Carolina native and USC grad, she can be found exploring Minnesota’s abundance of towns, food and culture. Follow her on Instagram @briabarton.
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