As the clock struck 6 p.m. on Saturday, a switch was flipped and a popular holiday tradition once again lit up the sky and lifted the spirits of people gathered at Locomotive Park in Lewiston.

The Winter Spirit display didn’t have the usual fa­nfare of a festive opening ceremony this year, but that didn’t stop folks from counting down the seconds to seeing dancing penguins, trees covered in colorful lights and the glow of a large fireplace at the downtown park.

When the lights came on, the Christmas music was queued, the train bell began ringing and cellphone cameras captured the familiar scene of families skipping through decorated arches, posing near giant gingerbread cookies and peeking out from an illuminated igloo.

For the past 26 years, these memories have been added to family photo albums and appeared on numerous Christmas cards. The hearty group of Winter Spirit volunteers said they didn’t want the coronavirus pandemic to hamper the tradition, especially since so many annual activities have been canceled, such as the Lighted Christmas parade in Clarkston.

Jon Copeland, who spearheaded the committee, said the Winter Spirit display is an outdoor crowd pleaser that’s more important than ever during this unusual chapter in history. The lights will shine each evening until about Jan. 9.

“People want to get out of their houses, and there’s no cost for a family to come down here and experience some holiday cheer,” Copeland said. “This is a great place to forget about everything else that’s going on in the world right now.”

Janet Ray, of Clarkston, has spent the last three years volunteering for the time-consuming project. Although some of the activities have been curtailed because of COVID-19, she is happy the Winter Spirit lights are shining in 2020. Twinkling lights and balloon art have been added to the display, along with reminders to remain socially distanced.

“I think we all need some brightness this year,” Ray said. “It’s sad we can’t have the big opening program, but at least we have the park lit up. It just makes me feel good to see people enjoying it.”

Angela Bibee, a 40-year-old Lewiston resident, was in attendance for the initial flick of the light switch, along with her boyfriend, Ty Atwood, 32, also of Lewiston.

“It’s kind of different this year, and I’m sad they can’t have the opening ceremony with the dancers, but I’m grateful for the lights,” Bibee said. “This is a tradition for us. We come every year.”

Atwood said he was happy to see something familiar in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley during the pandemic.

“The virus has kind of sucked the holiday spirit out of everyone,” he said. “Luckily, we have the lights. We were afraid this was going to be canceled, too.”

Jolie Altmiller, a 12-year-old Lewiston resident, said her grandpa helped set up the lights, and she was there to help support him. It’s also a prime opportunity to get in the Christmas spirit and hang out with friends, she said.

“This is a really big part of our family tradition,” Altmiller said.

Gidget McQueen, 53, said her family attends the first night of the light display every year because it’s an ideal way to kick off the season. Thanksgiving and Christmas may look different this year, but the lights bring back good memories, she said.

“I just had surgery, so our holidays won’t be as big this year,” the Lewiston woman said. “I’m waiting for my grandkids to get here, and looking forward to a fun night. I just got over the coronavirus, and I was not myself for a while. I was tired and lethargic and just felt funky.”

David “Touche” McQueen, 55, of Fernwood, was equally excited about being “out and about” at Locomotive Park on this mild November evening, with Christmas songs playing in the background and trees glowing all around him.

“This is cool to see,” he said. “I love anything festive, and it’s really nice to see people out and smiling.”

Typically, the opening ceremony draws between 700 and 1,000 people to the park, but Saturday night’s gathering was much smaller without the dancers and other activities. Numerous people wore masks, and most folks were socially distancing in the outdoor setting.

Standing near the decorated train, Dylan Cooper, a 19-year-old Clarkston resident, said the Winter Spirit display provides a great opportunity to hang out with friends he hasn’t seen in awhile, and also gets him in the holiday spirit.

“This is kind of one of the staples in our community,” Cooper said. “I think it’s a good thing for families.”

Tri-Cities resident Hobbs Tieu, 17, said he was pleased his visit to the area coincided with the first night the Winter Spirit display lit up the park.

“I’m glad they’re still doing it,” said the former Lewiston-Clarkston Valley resident. “It’s nice to have one constant during the pandemic.”

Sandaine may be contacted at (509) 552-1137 or at ksandaine@lmtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @newsfromkerri

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