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Festival of Lights marks 25 years of Christmas joy


Festival of Lights marks its 25th year of bringing Christmas sights, sounds, smells and tastes to Festivalgoers. Choral concerts are performed in The Grotto's Chapel of Mary, known for its wonderful acoustics.
Lights and song first lifted the darkness of winter nights at The Grotto in 1988.

During the intervening 25 years, The Grotto's Christmas Festival of Lights has transformed the darkness into a joyous celebration of the traditions this special season brings. The Grotto's festival has become a mid-county tradition, welcoming more than 65,000 visitors a year.

Many of the finest choirs from the Pacific Northwest consider their Christmas performance at The Grotto to be the highlight of their choral year. Over the years, they spread the word through the choral community about the exceptional acoustics in The Grotto's 600-seat chapel.

With the support of nearly 8,000 singers and musicians, this year's festival presents 179 indoor concerts. As the event has grown from 10 nights to this year's 37 nights, The Festival of Lights has become the world's largest Christmas choral festival.

This year's 25th annual presentation of The Grotto's festival opened Friday, Nov. 23, and continues nightly through Sunday, Dec. 30. Featuring five magnificent concerts each evening and nearly one million lights, the festival presents the traditional sights and sounds of the season.

This year's theme, “Angels on High!” reflects the sacred nature of the season, with lighted, dancing angels on the rock cliff and wondrous music filling the festival both indoors and outdoors.

Many school, church, and civic groups from around the Pacific Northwest give their gift of music each year. This year, 85 school and 47 civic choirs are scheduled, including 12 middle schools, most Portland area high schools and 10 choirs representing colleges and universities. While choirs have come from Idaho, Vancouver B.C., and even California, this year, Union High School from Northeast Oregon travels the farthest.

The Festival of Lights runs nightly-except Christmas-from 5 to 9:30 p.m.
In addition to the lights and music, heartwarming seasonal entertainment helps create special family moments.

Festival visitors walk through The Grotto's beautiful botanical gardens to reach the Catholic sanctuary's central plaza, which is ablaze with lights and surrounded by dramatic architecture; a large, hand carved nativity set; outdoor caroling; Christmas themed puppet shows and a petting zoo.

All performance areas are indoors or under tenting, but visitors should dress for the weather including gloves and warm socks with rubber soled shoes. The average visitor spends approximately 75 to 90 minutes at the festival. The Grotto is accessible to those with disabilities. Seasonal food and beverages are available as is Christmas shopping in The Grotto's Gift Shop.

After four years of advance planning and gathering community support, the FOL debuted in 1988 with a modest 10-night presentation. Stretched thin, The Grotto's staff welcomed support from 135 volunteers and a little more than 10,000 people attended. Twenty-one choirs performed, of which seven are celebrating their 25th appearance with the event.

While the festival's original planners did not envision their initial presentation would become so large, the intent was to balance the season's joy and celebration with the serenity and reflection at its heart.

Organizers owe a debt of gratitude to the electricians and electrical contractors of NECA/IBEW Local 48. Since its inception, the annual support the FOL receives from them has been instrumental to establishing and maintaining the event.

Father Jerry Horan first envisioned the festival, recognizing it was a perfect blend of The Grotto's mission, the season's purpose, and the sanctuary's gardens and forested grounds. He worked with others to bring it to fruition. After the four years of planning, the festival's annual presentation grew slowly.

Planners quickly revised the unique cathedral quality acoustics in the chapel, perfectly suited for Christmas carols sung A cappella. They also recognized that The Grotto's garden grounds, cliffside and architecture lent themselves perfectly to such a lighting display.

Volunteers, currently between 700 and 900 a year, fill important roles and provide a sense of community and goodwill.

In 1991, Servite Father Jack Topper, became The Grotto's executive director.

In addition to his responsibilities as The Grotto's director, Topper is present every evening to greet Festivalgoers.

“It is gratifying to see the impact our festival has had over the last 25 years and we hope it will continue to have,” Topper said recently. He added, “The season, the songs, the acoustics and purpose of the festival are so inspirational, making our chapel a perfect setting for these wonderful concerts. We are fortunate to have received support from so many outstanding choirs. Many of them are the finest in the region and volunteer to perform at the festival each and every year.”

The Grotto's Festival of L
8333 N.E. Sandy Blvd.

Hours: 5 to 9:30 p.m. nightly—except Christmas— through Friday, Dec. 30
FOL info line: 503-261-2400
Ticket information:
$9 general admission
$8 senior-65 and over
$4 children ages 3-12
Two-years and under FREE
Free parking
To volunteer: 503-254-7371
Founded in 1924, The Grotto is maintained by the Order of the Servants of Mary, the Servites, whose mission is one of service to the community. Scheduling of concerts begins in February for the following Christmas and lighting set-up begins in late September. Volunteers are needed and scheduling typically continues throughout the festival.

Peter Mott is The Grotto's Christmas Festival of Lights coordinator.
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