Coruscate| kȯrˈ-ə-ˌskāt’ | (verb) To give off or reflect light in bright beams or flashes; sparkle.
We chose Wakeeney as our first overnight stop on our west/central Kansas road trip based entirely on geography. It was the nearest town of any size to the famed Castle Rock and Kansas Badlands, which we planned to explore the following day. We didn’t even know it was the self-proclaimed “Christmas City of the High Plains” until we pulled into town through a tunnel of sparkling lights and into the extravagantly decorated square.
Like most small towns, the sidewalks rolled up pretty early, so we were able to explore the winter wonderland to our hearts content with no worries about social distancing. It was nothing short of magical wandering the deserted streets accompanied by a soundtrack of tinny Christmas carols, sipping cocoa, laughing and spinning under the twinkling lights. It felt like our own private Hallmark Christmas movie.
Even the story behind the tradition, which began in 1950, is reminiscent of a holiday movie plot. It started as a marketing scheme hatched by local hardware store owner Art Keraus and banker Jake Heckman. The decorations were designed and built by hand in the basement of Keraus Hardware. Heckman was also an artist and Keraus was known for being able to build anything. The whole community pitched in, working together for hundreds of hours to create the unique display.
When complete, the metal-framed 35-foot tree was adorned with fresh pine greenery, more than 2,000 lights and topped with a 5-foot white star. Additionally, handcrafted wreaths, bows and bells rounded out the festive scene. In all, more than 6,800 lights and 3 miles of wire transform this small town into a holiday spectacle each year, starting the Saturday after Thanksgiving and continuing to sparkle until after the new year. The display was enhanced throughout the years, including the addition of a permanent “North Pole” where Santa’s Workshop is located as well as animated lights outlining the downtown buildings added in the 1990s.
As we wandered the deserted town on a crystal clear December night, we peered in decorated storefronts like the hardware store and drugstore, complete with an old fashioned soda fountain. It was easy to imagine we had stepped back in time. The vintage decorations helped.
The next morning, fortified with a pumpkin maple muffin from the local bakery, I finished up some holiday shopping at the hardware store and learned that there had been a big celebration planned to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the town’s holiday lights. Of course, the pandemic put those plans on ice, but they’re planning to do it up big next year. I think I’ll come back next year and immerse myself in the wonder and beauty of a small town Christmas.
Our trip was already off to a surprising start, with many more delights to discover as we got off I-70 and debunked the “Kansas is boring” myth.