Inside the twinkling lights that have become such an important part of Christmas for so many of us here in Duluth, a high school choir filled the frosty air with carols. After one of the songs, a young boy, maybe 12, turned to the creator of the grand backyard lighting display.
"These are the most beautiful lights I have ever seen, and I want to give you a hug," he said to Marcia Hales, who recalled the moment from last December while stringing up new lights, adjusting speakers, and making other last-minute tweaks this week in preparation for this year's guests.
"He gave me a hug like I have never had before," Marcia said.
She wouldn't know until later how special the moment really was. The boy's mother, tears streaming down her face, pulled Marcia aside and explained that her son was autistic. He had never hugged anyone before.
"I was speechless. That's what these lights do," Marcia said.
And have been doing for 18 years, ever since Marcia started inviting the throngs who were driving by and gawking to pull over and park and take a walk through. Numerous couples have gotten engaged in the lights. Weddings have been celebrated (with another planned for New Year's Eve). Traditions and memories have been made - and shared on the pages of guest books that fill up one after another inside a little garden house where Marcia puts out cider and cookies for her visitors.
Wish lanterns have been sent heavenward - along with so many prayers, particularly from those suffering loss who found peace in the soft, silent glow. Her display helped Marcia heal, too, following her husband's death. It was their annual project together. She continued it in his memory.
Babies have even been born, thanks to the display. That includes one of mine. In 2000, one of my daughters rubbed the head of the "wishing penguin," a popular stopping spot beneath a glowing archway. She squeezed her eyes tight and wished hard for a baby sister. Reggie was born that fall.
"I know it touches so many people. I know how it has become a tradition for so many," Marcia told me.
And that was why she couldn't help but choke up, her voice catching in her throat, as she explained the difficult decision she made to stop doing the display. This year will be the last. The lights go on for this final season at 5 p.m. Friday. Marcia will turn them off for the last time at 10 p.m. on Jan. 5.
"It's hard. It's my Christmas, too. It brings me to tears," she said.
Simply put, putting out more than 300,000 lights, a dozen or more plastic-mold and handmade static displays, and a laser light show on the Lake Superior beach is a lot of work. "It's a 24/7 job," Marcia said. It's too much for her at almost 74 years old and diagnosed two years ago with COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disease that blocks airflow.
She's terrible about asking for help, too. So while an army of eager volunteers pours cider and stokes the display's campfire all holiday season long, getting it ready falls largely to her and just a few others.
"I sometimes feel like I'm begging people, and I'm not real good at herding cats," she said.
Tris Tupa, a real estate agent from suburban Minneapolis, didn't need much prompting to pitch in. She drove up from Bloomington this week to string up replacement lights, to test bulbs, and to do whatever she could.
"I'm thrilled she's letting me help out," Tupa said. "Seeing these lights has brought me so much joy. They speak to my soul."
The display was getting to be too much for Marcia three years ago already. She was going to pull the plug at that time. But then Hollywood called. Literally. ABC-TV's "The Great Christmas Light Fight" heard about her display and decided to feature it. Like so many before her, celebrity host Taniya Nayak was overcome by emotion while walking through.
Duluth this week was listed as one of America's 10 best Christmas towns by the New York Post. Marcia's lights were a big part of the reason.
A bigger part, of course, is four miles away at Bayfront Festival Park. Bentleyville is "the country's largest holiday light show experienced on foot," the newspaper noted. Bentleyville is great. Fun. Flashy. Bright. A feast for the senses. And packed nightly with joyous visitors.
Marcia's is different - and not to be missed one last time over the next four weeks. Quiet. Peaceful. A non-commercialized reminder for so many of us of what makes Christmas special.
It's the sort of place that may even move someone to offer a hug, even if they had never done so before.
Chuck Frederick is the News Tribune's editorial page editor and the author of "Spirit of the Lights," about Marcia Hales' Christmas lighting display on Park Point. He can be reached at email@example.com or (218) 723-5316.
See the lights
What: "Holiday Spirit in the Lights," Marcia Hales' Christmas lighting display
When: Friday through Jan. 5 from 5-9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and from 5-10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Where: On Park Point at 3739 Lake Ave. S.