White outlines and unruly snowdrifts are all that remain in Marcia Hales’ backyard now on Duluth’s Park Point. The frame of a castle stands among pines, its lights turned off. There’s no campfire, no cider, and no laser lights dotting the shores of Her Majesty Lake Superior. Under this February afternoon daylight, the magical entrance tunnel resembles a row of croquet wickets. Her one-of-a-kind Christmas display has been shut down for almost two months now, and the elements have moved in.
You pass a solitary penguin on your way into Hales’ backyard. The penguin is lopsided and pretty well buried in snow. An American flag flaps in the wind next to it, and a sign reads “A SINCERE THANK YOU.”
Hales had been welcoming visitors to her yard for the past 19 Christmases now – total strangers, from near and far, walking through her back yard during the holiday season with hardly any trouble at all. She says these visitors became a second family of sorts over the years. She got to know a good deal of them personally, over a cup of hot apple cider in her cottage house.
“The first year [I had the lights on],” Hales recalls, “I left cookies and some cocoa in the cottage, turned the lights on, got in the car, and went to my mom’s for Christmas Eve. I came home that evening, probably 7:30-8:00 at night … tons of people were standing out here. We’re out of cocoa, we’re out of cookies. I thought, I guess I won’t be able to leave here at Christmas.”
When Hales turned off the lights and officially ended this Christmas season, it was the end of an era on Park Point.
This was the final year of Marcia Hales’ light display. She reckons she’s said that three or four times now, but this year it really was. There have been other last years, but this was the last last year.
Marcia Hales’ lights will be on again next year, but they’ll be displayed someplace else – at a certain mansion just off London Road, famous for the murders that happened there in the late 1970s. Yep: the Glensheen Mansion is showing up for the holidays with a Christmas tradition beloved by so many families in the Twin Ports and beyond.
“I’ve told people always, this has become my Christmas,” says Hales. “I’ve seen people over the years, I couldn’t tell you how many people I’ve met. I’m not sure that it will be very easy to be here without [the lights].”
Hales’ first attempt at having a final season was wrenched in a big way when ABC featured her light display on The Great Christmas Light Fight. That brought droves of visitors, at least one of which decided to key a volunteer site to mobilize those willing to help Hales with setup before and staffing during the holiday season.
Chuck Frederick’s Duluth News-Tribune story explains the decision to officially hang it up this year, at least in her own backyard: 300,000-plus lights, a dozen or more handmade displays, the laser lights, the demands that come with all that, and a recent diagnosis of COPD. And while volunteers showed up in healthy numbers to help while the lights were on, says the DNT piece, the setup fell largely on Hales and a few others.
Other sites had been suggested to Hales during the season, among them a park in Biwabik, Fitger’s, and a collaboration with Bentleyville.
“‘You know Bentley really needs to find a place for you down there,’” Hales recalls one volunteer telling her. “I looked at her and said ‘There’s no way in Hell I would move my lights to that fiasco.’” If you’ve ever tried driving to Bentleyville during UMD hockey season, or a hockey game during Bentleyville season, you know what she’s talking about.
When the idea came up about moving to Glensheen, a close friend inquired about it on her behalf to Glensheen’s management. Turns out, says Hales, Glensheen’s management had been instructed to reach out to her about this very thing.
She had a constructive chat with Glensheen Mansion Director Dan Hartman and just like that, retirement was again put on hold. The polar bears, the reindeer, and the infamous wishing penguins were coming off the shelf at Christmastime yet again.
Hales says she had never seen a good aerial view of her display before a videographer named Jitterbug Pearce put together a video montage (shown above) that almost made Hales tear up when she played it for me in her kitchen during our chat.
I asked her if she even realized it had gotten this big. She hadn’t.
“I started out with three little arches, and I would just make trees,” says Hales. “I didn’t put lights up in trees. I didn’t open the path to the beach until seven or eight years ago. The cottage was just a little unheated space. Things really changed, so I was growing out of room anyway.”
What Hales’ display will look at the Glensheen Mansion is far from finalized, she says. Staff members from Glensheen will be coming to pack up her decorations and bring them on over. She says she’ll be working with Glensheen leadership on the arrangement, but we can at the very least hope the wishing penguins will be accessible (I have a wishing penguin story of my own, detailed in my last piece).
But will Hales be there? She says it will depend on weather. She’d like to, but as she gets older (she’ll turn 75 this year), braving heavy snowfall and driving on ice become less appealing to her. But, elements willing, she’ll be there.
“A friend of mine who lives in the Cities wrote me and said, ‘They need to build you a heated throne and a heated igloo, so that you can greet all your fans.’” she says, and a laugh quickly follows. “Someone else asked if they were giving me a room.”