Lights on the Washington Monument have become a holiday tradition

Baltimoreans wouldn't trade their Monument lighting for anything.

Only in Baltimore, perhaps, could the city’s favorite Christmas tree be a 178-foot-tall marble column. Hey, the rest of the world should be so lucky.

And it turns out, like so much about Baltimore in the last 50 years or so, we have William Donald Schaefer to thank for the Washington Monument’s status as a glowing holiday mainstay.

Prior to 1972, various garden clubs decorated the monument for the holidays, usually with a tasteful collection of greens. The idea of putting anything as garish as lights on the nation’s first major monument to the Father of Our Country was dismissed out-of-hand. Back in the ‘60s, when it was common practice to bathe the monument in floodlights, someone was heard to complain it made famed designer Robert Mills’ handiwork look like it had a case of warts.

The lights were promptly turned off.

But then Schaefer, who was about to mark his third Christmas season in office, came back from a trip to Indianapolis. This was back before that city stole our Colts and became not exactly our best friend, and Schaefer was reportedly taken by its tradition of decorating many statues and other structures with lights.

Put ‘em on the Washington Monument, the mayor ordered. And thus was a holiday tradition born.

And what a tradition it has become. What began with little fanfare has become a holiday festival, complete with music and fireworks. In 1996, to mark the 25th tree lighting, Pittsburgh pastry chef Andrea Carros Schrenk, who had been born in Baltimore, created an 18-inch-tall replica monument out of marzipan to mark the occasion (“I don’t think it’s edible,” she admitted, after it had turned hard and dry).

That year, the illumination was accomplished with 28 strings of lights, holding 980 white bulbs. When the lights are turned on Thursday, during a celebration set to begin at 5 p.m., some 16,000 LED lights will be used to make the monument glow.

Frequently, celebrities get the honor of flicking the switch that illuminates the monument for the first time. In 1996, actor Richard Belzer, who was in town filming the NBC series “Homicide: Life on the Street,” did the honor. (“It’s really great to see everyone together, black and white,” he said. “Put me out of work. Put the show off the air. No violence.”)

In 2003, Olympic figure skating gold medalist Dorothy Hamill was tapped for the honor. Two years later, it was Baltimore’s own John Waters who made Mount Vernon glow. This year, the honors go to 5-year-old Abby Leach, from Baltimore’s Ronald McDonald House, and her family, who will be accompanied by the Ravens’ Steve Smith Sr.

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