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A little holiday cheer will be missing this year as the Howard Hospital Foundation announced last week that the annual Symphony of Lights will be taking a season off to make way for ongoing construction at Merriweather Park at Symphony Woods.

While the dazzling lights of toy soldiers, gingerbread houses and leaping reindeer won't be shining through the 20-minute winter wonderland drive-through in Columbia, Howard Hospital Foundation Vice President of Development Sandy Harriman said the break allows the foundation to replace all 250,000 light bulbs with LED lights.

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"We've had the event for 21 years and we were still using the original light displays," Harriman said. "Typically, you would need to replace those lights probably a little more often than we did."

Harriman said the decision — made just days before the official announcement — was reached after careful consideration between foundation board members, the hospital leadership and Merriweather representatives.

With a raised stage and new dressing rooms coming to the venue, Merriweather special operations representative Justin Lavis said the constant construction would inhibit the community's enjoyment of the light displays.

"Along with the construction that Howard Hughes is doing out in one of the parking lots [and] with just all the construction equipment, it was just going to be very hard, logistically, to pull that off," Lavis said.

Columbia resident Ilana Bittner said she "wasn't terribly surprised" about the postponement as she had seen the construction up close during her time as race director of the Discover Downtown 5k on Sept. 27. As runners weaved through Columbia's landmarks, including Symphony Woods and Merriweather Post Pavilion, Bittner said their safety was her top priority.

"I actually remember driving through there and thinking, 'I can't see them being able to do it this year,' " Bittner said. "I think it's one of those things that when it comes back next year, it'll be like a grand re-opening. Sometimes, we have to take some time to make improvements to something and that comes back even better than ever."

The foundation will also refurbish the light displays' metal frames, Harriman added, which have rusted over time.

"They're wired together now, so those connections of the wire frames need to be upgraded," Harriman said.

Lavis said he's also noticed that other pieces of the displays have been lost.

"I've been involved in putting the lights up for about 17 years," he said. "We've tried to keep up with getting the rust off every year and repainting them, but when you're putting [the steel frames] up and taking them down year after year, they're losing little tabs and things. A lot of them are held together by pressure bolts and, over time, they get rusted. It makes the whole operation a lot more difficult for the lights to go up and come down."

However, Harriman is optimistic about the future of the Symphony of Lights.

"I think we will be looking into [new additions]," she said. "There are also new technologies with light displays now that are much more enhanced than 21 years ago, so I'm sure there will be some new features to that."

In the meantime, Susan Case, senior director of marketing and communications at Howard County General Hospital, said the community can still enjoy the lights virtually on YouTube.

"We're asking everybody to share their holiday memories on Facebook; take pictures of your own lights and share the spirit with us," Case said. "We really enjoy seeing everybody every year. The parents who bring their kids to this, many of them were born here and it's just such a tradition that was woven into the hospital."

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Bittner said her family will be back to enjoy the brighter experience when the lights flicker, once again, in 2016. Until then, new traditions can begin.

"I think we're a wonderful, creative, resilient community and I think we'll have a great holiday season just like all the others," Bittner said. "We will find things to fill that void."

To donate a light bulb for $10 to the Symphony of Lights, go to hcgh.org/brightenthelights.

A video of the lights can also be seen at hcgh.org/symphonyoflights, with past pictures and experiences shared at Facebook.com/symphonyoflightsfestivities.

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