Christmas is a time for lights.

Cities, towns, homes, and trees get draped with lights to mark the festive season and, even if only for a moment, take minds off the stress that often accompanies it. And while this is all well and good, over time the typical light displays become old hat. When the focus of the display is the lights themselves, it becomes difficult to innovate and draw new eyes. The only solution is to take the focus off of the lights and move it to something.

This is exactly what Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois has done with their new light display “Illumination.”

I had heard about the display from my mother, who had read about it in the paper. Supposedly, I was told, the display moves the focus from the glimmering lights to the trees. To me, it sounded like little more than another light show, but there was little else going on in my neighborhood so I begrudgingly got in my car and headed over. Moreover, seeing as I had no one special in my life and no friends in town, I made the decision to go alone. I paid the fifteen dollar entrance fee and left the visitor’s center to walk along the mile plus path.

And immediately, I realized that this was not a lights display, but rather a tree performance of sorts. There are lights, lots of them. 500 LED fixtures decorate the trees, enhance the trees, but they do not become the star of the show, more like the “scenery in a play,” as another visitor so eloquently put it to me.

And boy, does Morton want you to interact with the trees, even play with them.

At one point during my walk, I came across a tree that was surrounded by kids. At first, I planned on speeding by due to my disdain for middle school children. But the parents were also enthralled by the tree, so I asked what was the big deal was. I was told that it was called the “hug-a-tree experience,” and I should “watch what happens.” All of the sudden, when one of the kids hugged the tree, the lights on it changed, and then changed again when he stopped. Fascinated, I subtly shoved a few kids and hugged the tree myself. Depending on how hard I squeezed the tree, the color changed accordingly. Similarly, a little ways down the path, there were trees that I could sing to and have the lights react to the notes. I can’t help but feel that I worried some parents as a twenty-something singing and hugging trees joyfully, and by myself.

But for a few minutes, I could not have cared less.

The purpose of the “Canopy of Lights,” as it was called by the Chicago Tribune, is to create an atmosphere of play with the trees. It may seem silly at times, but even a cynical college student like me found pleasure in the creative ways that Morton unites man and tree. As one employee explained to me, “Often times when people visit the arboretum, they stay on the driving path and merely observe the trees. They don’t take time to feel or experience them. With ‘Illumination,’ we are trying to draw the visitors out of their cars and make them stand among the trees.”

What is more is that Morton often gets far fewer visitors come winter. Fall draws many to observe the leaves, but as soon as they hit the ground, there is less aesthetic appeal to the trees. The lights display gives visitors a reason to visit in the winter months and see the bare trees as beautiful, alongside the pines and firs.

I heard people around me describing the lights as “a canvas for the trees” and “a beautiful stage.” I do not have an artistic mind so the thoughts never crossed my mind, but I still found the trees striking. To put it as simply as possible, it was a cool experience. I had never seen something that used so much light, but still had it as a bit part. Every light was used to enhance the trees. It was not a walk through a technologically enhanced forest in my eyes, but rather, it was a nature walk.

Morton Arboretum is first and foremost a sanctuary of nature in the middle of a concrete jungle, and bringing in people to observe their sanctuary in winter is top priority for them. But they also want to make sure that the concrete jungle stays out.

As I finished the walk and headed to my car, I made an observation that had gone over my head when I first got there. The trees that dot the entrance to the Arboretum were covered in lights, but not in the same way that the trees on the path were lit. They were draped in strung lights, like trees in a downtown area would be. This struck me as ironic, since the whole purpose of “Illumination” was to use lights as a support for the trees, not the other way around. I received no answers from security guards as to the purpose of this change of pace, but my own conclusions were that it was a clever way of making comparisons with other types of tree displays.

It was a cute way of saying “see how most people do this, now step inside and see how we do it better.”

In the end, my regret was that I did not have any special someone to share the experience. It could be a good date or family outing, something to be experienced in groups. I enjoyed my time, but I had no one to bounce my thoughts off of, no one with whom I am going to share memories. But I will remember my experience, and possibly try to bring back a few friends before it closes in January.

Maybe then some snow will fall on the branches and add a new element to the already stunning display.

You can get a glimpse of “Illumination” here:

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