Some friends and I had just wandered through this magnificent light display on Park Point in Duluth. No, not THAT one. This one was in somebody’s yard. It’s true: we had just spent the last 20 minutes or so tromping through the backyard of a residence. The last time I had spent this much time in a stranger’s yard …
Anyhow, the owner of the house was pouring hot apple cider in the garden house. She had this big, white sweater on and was throwing hellos and good-byes at a grueling pace. I’m talking Matrix fast (slight exaggeration, perhaps). A friend identified her as Marcia Hales, and suggested I interview her. I responded affirmatively, but with caution. Would she even want to? How thoroughly would I have to explain the blog I write, that’s usually about food and beer, you see, but sometimes if I really want to tell somebody’s story I’ll–
“Here you go, honey,” said the woman, handing me a cup of cider.
It was perfectly warm, not blistering hot, immediately enjoyable but never got cold. It completed the experience her light display, a gorgeous homage to the kind of classic holiday celebrations we just don’t do anymore. In typical modernist fashion, I captured her light show on my phone camera … then wiped out most of the photos by accident. Is she really going to let me interview her? She probably gets this kinda request all the time.
I strung together a noodle necklace of words that, fortunately, she translated as an interview request. She said yes with no hesitation. If anything, there was curiosity in her voice concerning why I found that so hard to ask.
Two days later, I was in her kitchen with a huge cup of coffee. I was there for nearly two hours.
Even above-average folks dreams of one day being a great person. For them, being one is enough.
Marcia Hales has been several.
Hales has served on Duluth’s City Council. She was the very first female car salesman in the history of the city. She oversaw operations of the airport at the end of Park Point. Now, she’s the mastermind behind one of the city’s great Christmas traditions. For some visitors, it’s just fun; for others, it’s been likened to a healing source or a thin space between Heaven and Earth.
Hales had always been an admirer of Christmas lights, but began displaying her work publicly 19 years ago. She convinced her husband, Alan, to help her make a run at the city’s Christmas light competition in 1998.
“He wasn’t really into traipsing around in the slush and getting the lights up, but I told him ‘We could win this’” she said, “and he’d say ‘Yeah right.’”
The Hales family won second place that year, and were determined to capture first prize the following year. Marcia sketched up blueprints for even grander designs; and Alan, a sheet-metal worker by trade, made them reality.
In April 1999, Alan passed away unexpectedly. Rather than let that be the end of the story, Marcia marched onward and finished the job; however, while she won the Residential Division, her online application for the Masters Division was one of nine that were lost by the judging committee that year.
“It was kind of disappointing because it would have been very special that year,” said Hales. The Masters committee offered her an honorable mention, and she admitted she wasn’t particularly graceful about it. She wasn’t too kind to her competition after that, either – for the next eight consecutive years, Hales won first prize. It wasn’t until the committee asked her to withdraw so another contestant could win that her streak ended.
A few years later, she appeared on ABC’s Great Christmas Light Fight. Masters judging committees were replaced by national voters and ABC’s Taniya Nayak.
“I said to her, ‘I don’t know why you chose to come out here. My yard doesn’t look like a Menards truck tipped over.’” said Hales. “If you watch these, these are to the top. People put thousands and thousands of dollars into their display. That’s not me. I’ve always tried to keep it very simple, and I feel like it’s an old-fashioned Christmas. That’s kind of gone by the wayside in this day and age.”
The Wishing Penguin
A lot of people have stories about the Wishing Penguin in Marcia Hales’ yard. I have one, too.
My second time touring the display featured a way-too-long staredown with a plastic figurine on the way out: a penguin standing beside a sign that read “BELIEVE.” I stepped forward and tapped it a couple of times on the head.
“Please help me find my wedding ring,” I muttered into the air.
I’d taken it off at the place I was staying, and apparently a space-time continuum rift opened up underneath it and swallowed it. Again. I’d torn my room upside-down, inside-out, sucked it all into my viscera like a black hole and barfed it back out like a mother bird. I’d searched my bags twice, three times, nothing. Nothing in the bathroom, the kitchen, the car, nothing. Now, I was asking a plastic penguin for help.
“Please help me find my wedding ring,” I said one more time and went home.
The first thing I did when I got back was dig through the black and orange drawstring bag I pack my toiletries in when I travel. I stuffed my hand in, ran it across the bottom of the bag, and pulled it back out. With it came a shaving razor, a small piece of lint, and my wedding ring.
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The legend of the penguins goes back several years, when the granddaughter of a friend pet one on the head and claimed that doing so made wishes come true. Hales recalled hearing the story, thinking “that’s cool,” and posting a sign beside the flock advertising it.
Little did she realize the ripple effect it would have.
“The stories about people wishing on the penguins and having them work out, they just keep on coming,” she said. “It’s just amazing.”
The flock has fluctuated in size over the years, said Hales, sometimes diminishing, other times growing unexpectedly. One year, she went outside on the 4th of July and found all of her penguins had been taken. Hales was running for City Council that year, and responded by starting a “Penguin Party.” She put notes in the newspaper asking for their return. What she got instead were community members dropping off replacement penguins at random. At another point, Hales recalled, she had to switch out the wishing penguin to keep the original from having its head caved in from all the head-pats it had sustained. The hits kept on coming, and the wishes kept on coming true.
Of course, it doesn’t always work the way one would like.
“A mother came with her son,” she said, “and he was a rambunctious little man. He was standing there with the penguins, petting them and screaming ‘It doesn’t work! It doesn’t work!’ They finally looked at him and said ‘What are you wishing for?’ He said ‘A new car, and look! It doesn’t work!’”
There had been whispers on those Lake Superior winds at one point, about how Hales might not be hangin’ ‘em up after this last season concluded. The public collectively made a wish, and helped themselves in the best ways possible. Friends stepped up to help, and brought their friends. Local clubs came on board, and past visitors reached out. A GoFundMe site raised $1,200 to circumvent rising power costs and increasing food and drink prices.
“I realize that this is a tradition for so many people, just saying I wasn’t going to do this anymore has really come back to haunt me,” said Hales. “I’ve had so many people offering, and I’ve got the lights. I’ve got everything people need.”
Just how long-term a future is locked up for the display is unknown, but it will at least shine through one more holiday season. The biggest areas of need Hales identified were manning the fireplace and the refreshment stand.
The actual grunt work, she said, is best left to the one’s who’s been doing it all these years. She pooh-poohed my suggestion that she may be able to dole the work out entirely to volunteers and just kick back.
“That’s my own fault,” she said. “I’m kind of a perfectionist. I know how I want things done. I’m almost 72. I don’t know if I’m going to outgrow wanting things done the way I want them. I can practice, though.”