light up athens pic

Light Up Athens will be held throughout the month of December and encourages businesses to decorate their storefronts with holiday decor and lights. (Courtesy/ACC Leisure Services)

Under normal circumstances, the Athens community typically kicks off the holiday season by participating in the Downtown Parade of Lights. However, the Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services Department had to find a new, pandemic-friendly way for the Classic City to ring in the holidays this year.

This season, ACC Leisure Services will begin a new holiday tradition for the local community called Light Up Athens. This festive program will ask that Athens’ downtown businesses light up their storefronts with holiday decor and lights.

Light Up Athens will take place throughout the month of December, where event activities will be held every Friday and Saturday from 6-9 p.m. On these nights, festivities will commence throughout downtown, such as appearances from Santa Claus at City Hall, “Selfie” spots throughout the city, holiday music and more.

Melanie McElroy, community outreach and development coordinator at ACC Leisure Services, is usually in charge of the annual Downtown Parade of Lights. Though she looks forward to holding this event every year, McElroy said she knew it was necessary to take a step back this year and find an alternative that wouldn’t require large group gatherings.

“Instead of just canceling the parade, I wanted to work to try and find a solution that could be a more passive holiday experience, but that could also bring that festive spirit to the community,” McElroy said.

When initially brainstorming ideas, McElroy said she took inspiration from drive-through light shows, such as the ones hosted at Callaway Gardens. With events like these, responsibilities are put in the hands of the citizen, McElroy said. Therefore, people can participate in the ways in which they feel comfortable.

“As far as how [people] want to participate, they can drive through safely in their car, or they can park and walk around, and look at the lights that way,” McElroy said.

In another effort to prevent large group gatherings, McElroy and her team made the decision to host Light Up Athens over the course of multiple nights, rather than holding a one-night event. These nights, called “Highlight Nights” will take place on the Fridays and Saturdays of December and will allow for citizens to participate in staggering numbers rather than in one large group.

To increase community engagement, the Downtown Parade of Lights typically incorporates a bit of healthy competition among its participants. Every year, awards are presented to floats such as “Best Overall,” “Best Use of Theme” and “Best Use of Lights.” For Light Up Athens, McElroy wanted to continue to incorporate this competition component in the event.

On random nights, McElroy said ACC Leisure Services will have judges explore downtown Athens and evaluate the storefronts of participating businesses. The judges will then assess each store’s creativity and use of lights to determine the winners for categories such as “Best Overall Display,” “Most Original Display,” “Best Use of Lights” and more.

McElroy said she is proud of herself and her team for adapting to this year’s unforeseen circumstances and providing the people of Athens with a sense of normalcy during this holiday season. She hopes Light Up Athens will encourage the community to find safe ways to celebrate Christmas.

“I hope that members of the community and businesses can get a little bit of a familiar holiday feeling without compromising their safety,” McElroy said. “I encourage everyone to come out and view the lights and experience the feelings that the holiday season brings.”