Downtown Athens, a place overflowing with music, energy and excitement, becomes even a little more lively during this time of the year despite the cold weather. Seemingly overnight, the streets of downtown turn into a winter wonderland.
The holiday season can mean traveling across the country to visit family, buying presents for loved ones or — for many college students — a lot of studying for finals.
But no matter what residents are doing, the lights are one tradition everyone in Athens shares.
These decorations don’t just appear out of nowhere — a lot of work and preparation goes into making Athens look as remarkable as it does year after year and starts months before the lights even come on.
Usually in September, right after Labor Day, the crew in charge of decorating begins its task. Since the lights are actually left up year-round and just lit for the seasonal time, the members focus on checking and repairing them and stringing new ones where they are needed.
“We use a 50-foot reach bucket truck, and teams of two people go each evening stringing and checking lights in the trees,” said Jeanne Connell, the landscape management administrator of Athens-Clarke County. “There’s a lot of communities that have lights that are on throughout the year, and so it kind of takes away the specialness. It’s just something to look forward to every year.”
"[My favorite part is] mostly just the reaction of the public."
The lights come on in November, giving the students at the University of Georgia plenty of time to enjoy them, even if they go out of town for winter break.
But the process involves more than just the lights. The crews are also in charge of the various other decorations that make downtown look so festive.
“My crews put up pole wraps — the garland around the light poles — and we do the Christmas tree at City Hall,” said Stanley Beasley, the landscape building supervisor. “Then some of them put the lights up in the oak trees on Clayton and Broad streets.”
While the lights take several months to perfect, decorating the large tree by City Hall usually only takes two or three days. The light poles downtown are also decorated in festive garland.
“Theres about 182 of those [light poles],” Beasley said. “They get all four crews to get those up before the Thanksgiving holidays. The lights and the large trees on Clayton — I’ve been here almost 23 years and those were up before I got here.”
The tradition is something the whole community looks forward to every year.
“Everybody loves the season with the lights downtown when they’re out and about at night, and we’ll get a lot of comments, positive comments,” Beasley said. “I think everybody seems to enjoy the whole atmosphere down there.”
Since this tradition began, it’s only continued to grow. The crews decorate more of the downtown area than they did 20 years ago, so people can appreciate it more as the years go on.
“[My favorite part is] mostly just the reaction of the public,” Connell said. “Just how much joy and happiness it brings to everybody.”